Fear of a Black God – Renee Cox’s Yo Mama’s Last Supper

By Shantrelle Lewis Friday, June 1st, 2012 Categories: +fav, Features, Updates
 

During communication with poet and journalist Andre Bagoo, he suggested that we  look for ways to engage with multiple and disparate voices in our community. By inviting scholars, artists, curators, writers and those connected to the cultural industries in the Caribbean region and its diasporas, to comment one their favorite works of art, we hope that this serves as a platform of education, inquiry and conversation. This intention is grounded in the ability for each selected participant to write a few paragraphs to elucidate and comment on their choice. +FAV will be produced twice a month and will present a diversified field of ideas on which we can ponder and thus come to understand the critical and personal nature of how artwork seeps into our consciousness and affects the way we generate and manifest our presence in this world. Curator and cultural activist Shantrelle P. Lewis starts June off.

-ARC Magazine.

 

Shantrelle P. Lewis, a native of New Orleans, is currently the Director of Public Programming and Exhibitions at the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute (CCCADI) and relocated to Brooklyn in October 2009.  For two years, she worked in the capacity of Executive Director and Curator of the McKenna Museum of African American Art. Having received her undergraduate degree from Howard University and master’s degree from Temple University’s Department of African American Studies, Ms. Lewis has demonstrated a commitment to researching, documenting and preserving African Diasporan culture. Additionally, she works with young artists and independently curates exhibits and initiates projects in various cities that are meant to incite, inspire, and shift the paradigms of their audiences.

Shantrelle P. Lewis

Anybody depending on somebody else’s gods is expecting a fox not to eat chickens. ~ Zora Neale Hurston

The racialized, Eurocentric homo-gendered iconography of Catholicism automatically coerces someone existing outside of that spectrum to naturally experience isolation and distancing. This is especially probable for a Black girl child who wondered why nowhere in the Catholic Cathedrals where she genuflected, did she see an image of God in the form of sculpture, oil painting, or stain glass window that looked anything remotely like herself.

What happens then, when that same little Black girl, with Jamaican roots and upper-middle class upbringing, interacts with those negating images? She grows up into a Black woman, or most notably, a “rude gyal” with an attitude, who would thirty-something years later unabashedly confront that iconography, in the form of a series entitled Yo Mama. Although according to Genesis 1:26, God created (wo)man in the image of Him(her)self, nowhere in Christian texts could be found a brown skin God with the face of a girl child from the Diaspora. That is not until Renee Cox decided to photograph herself nude as Jesus surrounded by 12 fully-clothed male disciples, all of them Black with the exception of Judas, who was white, and titled the 5-paneled piece Yo Mama’s Last Supper.

Renee Cox's Yo Mama’s Last Supper

My first time actually seeing Yo Mama’s Last Supper in person was a week ago during a visit to Renee Cox’s uptown studio in Harlem, New York. Back in 2001 when the piece was stirring up controversy with angry Catholics bearing theoretical pitchforks and torches, I was totally unaware of Ms. Cox’s work. At the time, I too was still a practicing Catholic (thanks to my quintessential New Orleans upbringing), and was in the space of trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life, after recently graduating from Howard University and foregoing the medical career that I spent my entire existence up into that point, training for. I’m not sure how I would have reacted to the news or the image itself had I had the opportunity to interact with Cox’s controversial piece at that juncture in my maturation into adulthood. However, thankfully it wouldn’t be until several years later, after my conversion to African spirituality and an African-centered graduate training that I would come in contact with this work and read it through a particular lens.

Brooklyn Museum’s 2001 inclusion of Yo Mama’s Last Supper in the exhibition Committed to the Image, curated by Barbara Millstein, created controversy that is still memorable more than a decade later. The initial backlash, initiated by then New York City Mayor Rudolph Guilliani, was congruous with historical revisionist theology ascribed to more ancient cosmological systems, beliefs and practices, particularly as they relate to Black people. Despite the fact that the development of monotheism itself was first actualized during the 18th dynasty of ancient Kemet under the rule of the Pharoah Akhenaten and that Jesus Christ is described as an individual with bronze feet and hair like wool, Cox’s audacious decision to confront both the patriarchy and racism persistent in both the structure of the Catholic Church and its iconography, was met with major dissension.

In this case, Guilliani and the Catholic Church’s dual reaction, was in line with the historical response Europeans both abroad and here in the western hemisphere had to African religions after the dawn of the Haitian Revolution. It was because of Dutty Boukman, the Jamaican houngan (Vodou priest), and his co-conspirators that white people began to fear a Black God. If insurrection and thus a successful rebellion was the result of enslaved Africans praying to a God whose face was Black like theirs, than that deity had to be destroyed and demonized by all costs.

Cox’s 1960 birth in Jamaica, comes two centuries after the birth of Boukman, a self-educated enslaved African who would in 1791, invoke the full-fledged support of the lwa and Bon Dje, the “Good God” at a ceremony at Saint-Domingue’s Bwa Kayiman. That ritual would serve as the inaugural event of the first successful rebellion of African people in the Western Hemisphere, which later would become known as the Haitian Revolution. Cox is also the product of the same land from which sprung another fearless warrior who is the subject of another one of her series entitled, Queen Nanny of the Maroons, which she completed in 2005.

Vodou, a world-view which is ancient as it is sacred, with origins in Benin amongst the Fon people, was transported to the New World in the belly of ships that carried human cargo, their memories, fears and resilient capacity to survive. In Vodou, the Supreme Being, Nana Buluku, is in fact a woman – a creation story very similar to that of many peoples throughout the continent of Africa. So when viewed appropriately, through an African-centered, cosmological lens, we see why in Yo Mama’s Last Supper, Cox is indeed, accurately posturing herself as the son (or daughter) of God and thus, according to Christian mythology, God her(his)self.

Viewing Cox’s work today, one sees the contradictions that exists for the Eurocentric, Judeo-Christian gaze, and can understand why her piece created such turmoil when it was included amongst Brooklyn museum’s installation of 200 other pieces created by Black photographers. With understanding or the lack thereof, of the contradictions that define an African cosmological and aesthetic framework  – especially when being able to pull from references such as the God of the mythical Allmuseri people in Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage [1], or the paradoxes expressed by figures such as the Diaspora’s deity Papa Legba – Gotham City’s former mayor and I, most certainly do not read Ms. Cox’s work in the same manner.

Perhaps both knowing and not knowing all of this, this Black woman Jamaican-American photographer inherently embraced her endowed entitlement – a gift bestowed upon her by birth. In her essay, “The Big Picture,” Shelly Eversley elaborates on Cox’s self-privileging – the entitlement she flaunts around series after series after series from Yo Mama to American Family.[2] After recently speaking to the artist at length, I was told that Cox couldn’t wrap her brain around what the big fuss was all about…back then or even now (See: reaction to Yo Mama’s Last Supper in Paraguay’s upcoming exhibition in October 2012).

So after that timeless studio visit, that lasted a few hours but seemed more like the passing of a few moments (not too different from the essence of timelessness of a Yoruba ceremony), we spoke about everything from our shared Catholic upbringings, Ekhart Tolle, maroons, merpeople and Afro-futurism. I had an opportunity to gain an even greater appreciation of the artist behind Yo Mama’s Last Supper, behind the Black woman who was bold enough, authentic enough, and self-aware enough to assert herself as Jesus Christ, the savior.

If Renee Cox could see God as her reflection, and to reference Hurston again if Black women are indeed the mules of the earth,[3] if Black people are indeed the most oppressed creature of humankind, what would happen if every Black woman, man or child, also believed that at their bare essence, they too were the divine? This philosophical quandary, is perhaps the underlying angst experienced by Guilliani, as he gazed upon Cox’s deified self. Perhaps, just as the Hebrew Christ figure before her died for the salvation of his believers, Renee offered her naked body up for martyrdom so that we too may have life eternal.

 


[1] Charles Johnson’s 1990 Middle Passage, presents an intriguing tale of the guttural reality of life on a Slaver, as these vessels were called. Though fictional, the story includes the character of a deity who is described in this passage: “’Oh, I’m not one to believe in heathen gods, but I know ‘tis different from anythin’ seen back in the States. The Allmuseri have worshipped it since the Stone Age. They say it sustains everythin’ in the universe…Naturally, they do not speak its name. That takes too long. It has a thousand names. Nor do they carve its image. All things are its image: stone and sand. Master and slave.” Johnson, Charles, Middle Passage (New York: Penguin Books, 1991), pp. 100-101.

[2] Eversely, Shelly, “Renee Cox: The Big Picture,” NKA, The Journal of Contemporary African Art 18 (Spring Summer 2003): pp. 72 – 75.

[3] The actual phrase, spoken by Janie Starks’ grandmother in Their Eyes Were Watching God, Nanny was “De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see. Ah been prayin’ fuh it tuh be different wid you. Lawd, Lawd, Lawd.’”

Shantrelle Lewis
Shantrelle Lewis

Shantrelle P. Lewis, a native of New Orleans, is currently the Director of Public Programming and Exhibitions at the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute (CCCADI) and relocated to Brooklyn in October 2009. For two years, she worked in the capacity of Executive Director and Curator of the McKenna Museum of African American Art. Additionally, she works with young artists and independently curates exhibits and initiates projects in various cities that are meant to incite, inspire, and shift the paradigms of their audiences.