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Essay

Neighbors, Strangers,  Family, Friends
Four Artists Reflect on Charis

The traveling art exhibition Charis—Boundary Crossings: Neighbors Strangers Family Friends features work by seven Asian and seven North American artists. The show grew out of a two-week seminar in Indonesia sponsored by Calvin College’s Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity and the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and led by the Plowshares Institute. Over that period, the participating artists traveled, ate, worked, prayed, and lived together. In the months following, they created work in response to their experiences. The Charis exhibition will travel to ten or twelve venues in North America through 2012 before heading to Asia. We asked four of the participants, Barry Krammes, Emmanuel Garibay, Daniel Enrique García, and Roger Feldman, to reflect on what they learned. Their responses are collected here.

 

Barry Krammes
Let’s (Try To) Harmonize

 

INDONESIA left me in a state of exhilarated confusion.

When Joel Carpenter called one rainy November afternoon and asked me to participate in the Nagel Institute’s trip, I perked up, since I had never traveled in the East. Trips abroad have consistently upended my status quo, yanking the rug from under my feet, and this excursion was no exception.

One of the youngest democracies in the world, Indonesia is a nation composed of many islands, layered with a tumultuous history of foreign influences, conquests, and religious traditions. It is the world’s largest Muslim country, with approximately 88 percent of the population adhering to Islam, but Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian strongholds prevail in certain territories. National holidays and festivals are a strange compilation of Muslim, Christian, and Hindu traditions. Timur Poerwowidagdo, one of the artists I met there, told me that her family is a tangle of religions: “They celebrate our Christian holidays with us and we spend Muslim holy days with them,” she says. In a world of converging cultures and beliefs, mingling with the other is becoming the norm everywhere, but in Indonesia, the other is your family, your milieu, even yourself.

In Yogyakarta, the ancient cultural capital, we were instructed to keep our flesh hidden and wear clothing that would not attract attention. Throngs of meticulously covered Muslim women of all ages—decked in hijab, tunics, and skirts—passed in colorful processions. In Hindu Bali, our retreat bordered miles of public beach where bronzed female tourists from Australia and New Zealand could go topless if they chose. Our Asian friends told us that in 2006, Christians voted with Hindus against the country’s pornography law that proposed to prosecute for indecency women who “bared their shoulders or legs, or artists who used nudity in their work.” In fall 2008, after much debate, the Indonesian Parliament finally passed a version of the law. Christian and Hindu critics are demanding a judicial review of certain portions, suggesting that the country’s “pluralism and harmony” are being destroyed.

“Harmony” seemed to be the hymn sung by everyone throughout the trip. Harmony in pluralism. Harmony in diversity. Harmony and peaceful coexistence. At first, I was skeptical. All this talk of harmony seemed a little glib. During a visit to a Hindu middle school we were told politely but in no uncertain terms that Bali’s Christians must not construct any more churches, because to do so would upset the fragile equilibrium currently in place. Hindus fought long and hard for control of Bali, and nothing is about to change that. What made this precious balance possible, we quickly learned, was contextualization. “Contextualization,” another buzzword proclaimed throughout the trip, refers to the way Christian theology and practice in Indonesia have been carefully assimilated into the cultural context.

Our hosts were eager to show us the architectural adaptations of the Balinese church, where Christians bent over backwards to construct Hindu-style buildings that reflected local design. On a Sunday morning we were driven to the Legian Protestant Church. From the outside, the structure looked like one of the island’s many Hindu temples. Closer observation revealed that the Balinese relief carvings that graced the exterior entrance walls were of Old Testament stories. Inside, a monumental, traditional stone temple gate stood behind the altar—but instead of Hindu symbols, it was covered with cross motifs.

As I sat in the pew waiting for the service to start, I began to get caught up in the beauty of the space, with its open-air sides revealing lush tropical vegetation. Then the vibrato of an electric organ jerked me out of Christian Bali and sent me back to Calvary Baptist Church in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, circa 1960. Was I hearing correctly? The words were foreign to me, but the tune was that of an old Sunday-school chorus I had sung often as a child: “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam to Shine for Him Each Day.” The congregation rose and sang with enthusiasm—the thoughtfully considered architectural structure strangely juxtaposed with this bad American gospel import. Where were the haunting strains of indigenous gamelan music? Wouldn’t the ancient, mystical sounds of the gamelan, softly floating in hypnotic, repetitive cycles, have provided a more authentic kind of worship? I could not make sense of the disjuncture.

We experienced the ultimate in contextualization one balmy evening. Using the costumes, movements, and gamelan music of traditional Balinese dance, Protestant church members performed “the dancing of the peace.” Their dance replaced Hindu gods and goddesses with the figure of Christ, and offered a Christian message of love, hope, and harmony. I found the performance simultaneously pleasing and disturbing. My colleague Steve Scott, who has visited Bali numerous times, had prepped me for the occasion with rave reviews of the “peace” dance. Part of me agreed with him, while somewhere deep inside another part of me wondered if this was nothing more than Balinese culture masquerading as Christianity. Joel Carpenter, quoting church historian Andrew Walls, pointed out that Christians have always “taken the things of the heathen world and furnished from them things for the worship and glorification of God.”

I tried to think of a corollary from American culture. At home, evangelicals sometimes try to uncover Christian symbolism in Hollywood movies, or refit various pop music styles with Christian lyrics—but nothing that I have experienced equals the way Balinese churches manage to incorporate local culture into Christian practices. Perhaps this is because traditional Balinese culture adheres to a very specific set of values and aesthetic forms that appear to be more cohesive than the various expressions of Christianity practiced on the island. Added to this is the wonderful notion that a disproportionate number of Balinese have artistic temperaments and view the world with heightened aesthetic sensibilities.

Several days later, we were invited to the home and studio of Erland Sibuea and Ayu Sri Wardani, a married couple in our cohort. Their two beautiful young daughters were waiting for us in full Balinese garb, eager to show off some of the traditional dances they were learning. Their sensuous movements and intricate hand gestures embodied the Hindu notion of a cyclical world continually melting and being revitalized. Erland stressed how essential it was for his daughters, as Christians, to embrace island mores and Balinese identity, to be seen as authentic, contributing members to the dominant culture and not as outsiders belonging to a “foreign cult.” Exclusion from the cultural mainline was not an option.

Our next stop that morning was the home of Nyoman Darsane, one of the founders of the Christian Balinese art movement. Nyoman is not only a painter but a mask-maker, musician, and storyteller as well. His home was a feast of visual delights, its thick, whitewashed adobe walls hung with his paintings of Balinese dancers in sunset hues of magenta and lavender. These, we learned, were a sort of underground Christian art. The form was Balinese, but to Christians, the images were recognizable as gospel stories. Grand, niched columns in his living room contained miniature skulls. I was unnerved at first, since I’m used to thinking of skulls and skeletons as pop cultural symbols of a facile obsession with the macabre. In Hindu tradition, however, the skull represents samsara, “the circle of life.” Then I was reminded that for Christians, Golgotha, “the place of the skull,” is where death was destroyed and the promise of eternal life initiated. We left Nyoman Darsane’s home with his mantra ringing in our ears: “Bali is my tradition. Christ is my life.”

When I attempted to grapple with the artwork the Asian participants were making, my head began to spin in earnest. To some degree, all were committed to the Christian narrative, all were figurative painters, and their work borrowed heavily from early twentieth-century western historical art movements. Though full of traditional eastern elements, their paintings were strongly reminiscent of the European expressionists and abstractionists, at least to me. Even more surprising were the didactic methodologies they chose to employ. It helped when Wayne Forte, an Asian-American artist friend, explained: “In the East one assumes that an artist belongs to a faith tradition and that that tradition is reflected in his or her work to a greater or lesser extent.” It appeared that my Asian brothers and sisters were politically motivated instrumentalists using their art to address issues of hope, justice, and deliverance. Some, I believe, saw their images as tangible confessions of Christian faith. Probing just a bit, I discovered that as artists with minority religious viewpoints, they preferred to let their art do the talking for them, rather than making overt declarations of faith. Instead, their paintings quietly asserted personal ideologies and beliefs.

I was encouraged to learn that the works of these Asian Christian artists were exhibited in prominent venues with national reputations, viewed and acknowledged by a wide audience. Ironically, in the western art world, nothing is more suspect than sincere religious imagery. Although there’s a gamut of contemporary images with Judeo-Christian themes, these are rarely discussed for their spiritual content. The joke goes that in order to show art with religious subject matter at a major American gallery or museum, an artist has to be a lapsed Catholic who no longer believes in the images being depicted.

Over the past thirty years, the western art world has been steeped in critical theory with an emphasis on conceptual work. The dominant conviction is that art-making is a philosophical game with clever solutions, to be critiqued and interpreted by an elite, educated few. Today, many sincere Christian artists in the States feel the need to keep personal, religious meanings encrypted, in contrast with a previous generation who felt compelled to express their beliefs more directly. For the most part, my colleagues at the Christian university where I teach are extremely skeptical of anything that smacks of Christian literalism. They dismiss explicitly religious images as nothing more than misappropriated and passé devotional art. My American Christian artist friends seek validation for their work by using fashionable visual languages that do not overtly reflect Christian messages.

During the trip, I struggled with how to explain the discrepancy between East and West, overt and encrypted, direct and indirect—perhaps because my own stylistic tactics fall precariously between the two. While everyone else was painting up a storm, I was having a sort of cross-cultural meltdown. Depressed and unproductive, I incessantly mulled over meaning and methodology. Nothing seemed to sway the persistent feeling of limbo as I lurched about in confusion. Sensing my frustration, Wisnu Sasongko, one of the Indonesian artists, tried to comfort me. “Westerners think a lot and want conceptual explanations for everything,” he told me. “Asians are much more interested in meditating on my work without wanting me to tell them what’s going on in my head.”

As we talked, worked together, and endeavored to understand each other, our personalities and artistic sensibilities began to challenge and influence one another in powerful ways. Subtle new approaches emerged as we awkwardly stumbled into each other’s worlds. Listening to the stories the Asians told, I found myself trying to imagine what it might be like to be in their situations. How would it feel to be a member of a minority religious group in a nation like Indonesia or, for that matter, Japan, where only one percent of the population is Christian? Or what must it be like for Emmanuel Garibay, one of the Filipino artists, who has been wounded by a corrupt and ineffectual Christian church? It was only after prayerfully pondering his passionate indictment of organized religion that my skepticism regarding all the talk of harmony began to abate. I, too, have been hurt by institutional Christianity. I sometimes struggle with bitterness. I know how easily it engulfs me in its slough of despond. Although I naturally gravitate toward dissonance and the minor key in my own work, through hearing about Manny’s pain, I began to understand that all the rhetoric about harmony was much more than glib platitude. In south Asia, harmony is a hard-won gift to be protected and cherished.

Like many westerners I have tended to compartmentalize my life, putting Christianity here and art-making over there. One of the buzzwords at the Christian university where I teach is “integration.” There is much talk about it, but little evidence that it is happening in an unforced, natural way. The more holistic Asian approach to art and life embodied in my new acquaintances, was a poignant, startling reminder of how I could learn to live. I was especially moved by Soichi Watanabe, the Japanese delegate. His mannerisms, disposition, and gentle spirit were uncannily echoed in his paintings. Everything about him and his art quietly whispered peace. One evening he haltingly quoted Matthew 5:9 to us: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” I wept.

Throughout my time in Indonesia, I wrestled with the angel. In tangible ways, the world I knew turned catawampus, with everything up for grabs. Outside my comfortable, homogeneous world, I confronted difficult questions that get pushed to the rear burner back home. What does it mean to be a follower of Christ in a rapidly changing, globalized world? Religions tend to divide, separate, and claim coveted truth. How does one deal with conflicting belief systems that negate and exclude each other? To what extent is there room at the table for everyone? The lure of universalism, the belief that all roads lead to God, is tempting, but it doesn’t mesh with the Christianity I practice.

The cultural blending I encountered in Indonesia was fascinating to contemplate, but to me at times it felt uncomfortably close to syncretism. Through my outsider’s eyes, everything seemed a strange commingling of East and West, of pagan and Christian. When it comes right down to it, isn’t everything we value just that—a complex, interconnected amalgamation of cross-pollinating cultures and worldviews? Especially regarding aesthetics, who’s to say that one system is more relevant, more authentic, more truthful than another? Interacting with the Asian artists challenged me to reevaluate how and what I teach my students about the relationship between faith and art. I conclude that there is little place in God’s Kingdom for presumption, prejudice, or triumphalism. Pounding my breast, I cry out, “Lord, I believe. Help thou my unbelief.” With tears in my eyes, I humbly acknowledge that life is a mystery—a sweet, unsolvable puzzle indeed.

 

Barry Krammes’s assemblage art has been featured in exhibitions regionally and nationally. He is a professor of art and the gallery administrator at Biola University, where he served as art department chair for fourteen years. He is currently the editor of CIVA SEEN. His work was featured in Image issue #55.

 

 


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