Looking for Jesus
The exhibition Looking for Jesus is a starting gun signaling the kickoff of a residency by Brazilian artist Jonathas de Andrade at project space Tale of a Tub, and by extension, Rotterdam. The show hosts an eponymous work made on another residency; at Darat Al Funun, Amman Jordan in 2013. Why the curators chose this artwork as our introduction to his practice is open to speculation. Perhaps because of the mechanic of voting at the heart of this relational piece; fittingly staged during the time of the Dutch national elections. Or does the installation cue a form of community outreach and engagement that his current research in the city and resulting piece will also follow?
During his residency in Spangen, Rotterdam, the artist has spent time at the city archive researching the Justus van Effenstraat complex in which the exhibition space is located. Designed by Dutch architect Michiel Brinkman and completed in 1922, the block was built to provide homes for port workers and their families, later housing different social groups as the area transformed. This history, which maps shifting fortunes, uses, and urban planning, should prove a fertile ground for the artist, whose previous work draws on interpersonal narratives and fictions to trace the workings of power, usually in his native Brazil. We can hope that in the matrix of Rotterdam’s questionable recent record of social housing dissolution and zoning of different social and ethnic groups into specific areas, a practice that has a history as old as the Justus van Effenstraat complex itself, De Andrade finds a poetics and political engagement that might activate and weaponise the research fragments that present themselves through the archive and interviews with previous residents. This research will lead to the production of a new work which will be presented at the end of 2017 at A Tale of a Tub.
The current exhibition and installation Looking for Jesus consists of a series of portrait shots of men in Amman who might be a realistic replacement for the widely distributed depiction of Jesus as blonde, white and blue-eyed. Andrade playfully seeks a more authentic version of the white-washed figure of Jesus common in his native Brazil, and more seriously uses the images as a way in to staging conversations with communities in Amman about the nature the representation of religious figures. The latter opens up a taboo space, as depiction of the Prophet is forbidden in Islam.
The main gallery space houses a green and white structure, drawing on colours of the Jordanian flag, that displays the numbered portrait photographs. A plate of dates hangs from the ceiling from which visitors are encouraged to eat and use its stone to cast their vote for the best Jesus stand in – like Jesus, the date has historically been a very successful Middle Eastern export. The voting mechanic, whilst being a simplistic nod to the relational, hooks the viewer into closely examining each image, objectifying and interrogating each for messianic signifiers; a beautiful glance upward and to the right, carpentry, or perhaps kind eyes? That some of these portraits were obviously taken with the sitters’ consent, and that others are snatched from the street is uncomfortably voyeuristic, detracting from the work's intended focus. Indeed there seems to be a disconcerting, and perhaps unintended, false innocence at play here. We as the viewer are made to stand in a position of power more often occupied by the state for whom racial profiling and facial reading is an exact and rapidly technologised science. To read a face is not an apolitical act, and through it we betray our prejudices and reveal our bias, (Judas was needed to point out Jesus to the authorities in the garden of Gethsemane, as he was otherwise unremarkable from the rest of the disciples.)
Most important to the opening up of the work to these potential biases are the signs in both Arabic and English dotted on the upper floor of the gallery that quote various Amman residents whom Andrade asked to respond to the images. Some express offence and incredulity, others reveal nuanced readings of the ethnic origins of the subjects; “Jesus is not a Bedouin!” reinforcing our human tendency to taxonomize through physiognomy. However, the real strength of the work lies in its indirect allusion to the hegemonic power of the westernized Christian Church executed through its control and distribution of an image of Jesus that through a white physiognomy reinforced Europe, and by extension Rome, as the centre of the Christian world. As such, the work intends to activate a conversation as to the possibility of decolonizing the image of Christ. Noticeably the hard right website Breitbart recently attacked writer Danni Roseman for her critique of the figure of a white Jesus as a symbol of the oppressive regime of westernized Christianity which was a central aspect of colonialism. The issue Andrade grapples with here is very much alive, and by no means limited to the field of art.