Jesus in tap shoes

2010-02-26 00:00

“INFECTING the City” is a novel programme of public art, which Spier funds on a yearly basis for Cape Town. One of the items interested me especially, and luckily was outside the Michaelis Art Gallery on Greenmarket Square, which is about 10 steps away from where I work.

So, I stood in the sun, with a small crowd of mostly young, alternative sorts of people. We were looking at the entrance of the gallery, which has some nice steps, a covered area and columns on either site. Between the columns had been mounted Beezy Bailey’s two life-sized bronze pieces, which are part of the performance. Like most of his work, they are quirky and strange. A man with long hair and a beard, in a loincloth, with stick-thin legs, arms outstretched, in high heels, and obviously doing some kind of dance.

The performance started, and out of the double doors of the gallery appeared a man with a false beard, long hair, wearing a loincloth and in tap shoes. It was unmistakably meant to be Jesus. Whereas the bronzes were white, this Jesus was black, young, slightly rounded of figure and camp as a row of pink tents.

He danced to a souped-up version (sometimes breaking into rap) of Lord of the Dance, with words written by Sydney Carter. It was a short piece, lasting no more than five minutes. I was extremely interested to watch the crowd. They clapped enthusiastically at the end and some of them jigged along with the beat in a supportive, sort of approving way, during the performance.

Before the performance, I had asked one of the organisers what the reaction to the piece had been. He said that they had received a whole lot of hate mail from Christians.

Of course it was predictable that they should get hate mail from Christians, but it got me thinking about a whole lot of things. When Sydney Carter wrote Lord of the Dance in 1963, it was partly inspired by Jesus and partly by a statue of Shiva as Nataraja. It was an adaptation of Joseph Brackett’s Simple Gifts, and he intended it as a tribute to Shaker music.

“I did not think that the churches would like it at all,” he said later. “I thought that many people would find it pretty far flown, probably heretical and anyway dubiously Christian. But in fact people did sing it and, unknown to me, it touched a chord … Anyway, it’s the sort of Christianity I believe in.

“I see Christ as the incarnation of the piper who is calling us. He dances that shape and pattern which is at the heart of our reality. By Christ I mean not only Jesus; in other times and places, other planets, there may be other Lords of the Dance. But Jesus is the one I know of first and best. I sing of the dancing pattern in the life and words of Jesus.”

Now, I know that Lord of the Dance is an extremely popular song in both the mainstream churches and in the Evangelical tradition. I can only imagine that some of the hate mail which the organisers of the exhibition received, was from people who themselves, at some point in their lives, have sung Lord of the Dance.

I can remember very clearly, when I was growing up in a tending-towards-Evangelical Anglican Church in Johannesburg, singing another of Sydney Carter’s hymns Standing in the Rain (1965). It had a very catchy tune and we used to sing it often. However, verse four read as follows:

Christ the Lord has gone to heavenOne day he’ll be coming back, sirIn this house he will be welcome But we hope he won’t be black, sir.

This verse was routinely omitted in my church. Because many of the congregation indeed fervently hoped that he wouldn’t be black. Indeed, the mere possibility of his being black was deemed offensive in the extreme.

Recently I found some amazing pictures on a blog I follow called Jesus in love blog. Both pictures are by photographer Bill Burch. The one is Transvestite Jesus. The other is even more strange, I think, which, if I understand it correctly, is cocking a snook in the direction of some feminists, as well as the more general swathe of patriarchists. It is called Fur Coat Jesus. And there is Jesus, as a woman, standing in a fur coat on the cross.

One of the readers of the blog describes them as disturbing. I suppose many, if not most religious people, would find them disturbing. They are certainly not the norm.

But the point all of them are making, this and the Beezy Bailey exhibition — one among many points — is a relatively simple one. Any and all pictures of Jesus are necessarily interpretive. What mainstream orthodox, or even so-called Bible-believing Christians, may see as the right kind of picture of Jesus, others could find offensive, disturbing, or blasphemous. Either that or is Jesus so fully and so comprehensively defined in patriarchal, hetero-normative terms, that nothing else is even remotely or conceptually (or even artistically) possible. I fear that might be nearer the real truth.

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