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.
A Conversation with Emmanuel Garibay
Emmanuel Garibay was born in Kidapawan, Cotabato, Philippines in 1962. He earned a BA in fine arts from the University of the Philippines and an MA in divinity from the Union Theological Seminary. He has received awards from the Cultural Center of the Philippines, the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, the Arts Association of the Philippines, and Il Bienal del Baloncestoen Bellas Artes in Madrid, Spain. He has held solo exhibitions throughout the Philippines and in the Netherlands, Sweden, Australia, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, and Indonesia. Currently he is president of the Asian Christian Art Association (ACAA). He was interviewed by Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk.
Image: Tell me about your experience as a Filipino in Indonesia.
Emmanuel Garibay: I noticed contrasts on two levels. First, between the Philippines and Indonesia: the Philippines prides itself on being the only Christian nation in Asia. It’s colonized, westernized; in general it has a low sense of history, heritage, and pre-colonial tradition. The pre-colonial part of us is unarticulated, unknown, inchoate. In contrast, the Muslim country of Indonesia is rich in historically rooted indigenous culture, and their heritage and traditions continue today. Modern Indonesian culture includes a mixture of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. Islam dominates, but in most urban centers there is a tolerant atmosphere. In more remote places, there are incidents of hostility towards Christians and other non-Muslims, but generally the government is committed to a pluralistic society.
On the other hand, there’s a contrast between all of Southeast Asia and America. In Southeast Asia you see a mix of past traditions gradually giving way to western consumerism, whereas America is the inventor and perpetuator of the culture of consumption. Asian Christian artists, except Filipinos, are minorities in their own countries. They’re trying to express Christianity in the context of their traditional cultures, but having difficulty finding acceptance. On the other hand, American Christian artists are trying to overcome a consumerist culture, and are seeking new perspectives through dialogue with different cultures.
Filipino Christians have a unique situation. Our church continues a tradition of western practice and theology and liturgy. We have a bad economy, very corrupt government, and we experience the spread of secular western consumer values in a whole range of fields: entertainment, sports, education, mass media. Ironically, poverty is what keeps most people connected to our old ways, because poverty limits access to education and exposure to mass media, and when you have no money you can’t go to the malls.
Image: What work from outside of your own culture has altered your art?
EG: If I had to single out one painter, I would say El Greco, because of his ability to elevate the human body to a divine level. I’m influenced by his approach of elongating the human figure. He’s not so much infusing bodies with ethereal qualities as raising the ordinary to the extraordinary. I portray people in ordinary situations, and I am trying to lift up that ordinariness by using their stories as metaphors for universal truths.
Image: Your work Oblation shows a very large figure with hands outstretched. Does the figure represent your people? Or perhaps the people of the world?
EG: I am citing first of all the suffering of those in poverty in the Philippines, especially those who try to overcome their hardships by struggling through political action, and who suffer as a consequence. Many activists there are summarily killed without any kind of judicial process. That’s why the figure is marked with bullet holes and other wounds. But the work speaks not just to conditions in the Philippines, and not just in Asia, but in the many parts of the world where people face human cruelty or natural calamities. The painting’s background is dark, but as in most of my work I have refused to give too much emphasis to the negative. The human spirit is overcoming that darkness. The figure becomes the light in otherwise dark surroundings.
Image: What do you think Asian Christian art has to say to the global community, or to the art world?
EG: That’s a good question, especially in relation to my situation right now, heading the Asian Christian Art Association (ACAA). Asian Christian art is important today in a world context, as its name implies that Christianity is also Asian. Christianity is global. For the longest time, “Christianity” meant the white man’s religion. Despite the growing number of books written by Asian theologians, liturgy and expression in Asian churches remained Eurocentric or America-centric. Most scholars, including Asians, do not concern themselves with reaching congregations, but mainly seek the approval of fellow scholars. What is crucial at this point is communication. The arts are a potent form of communication. Promoting Asian Christian art breaks the overwhelming dominance of western forms in Christian churches and other institutions. It enables Asians to see Christ in their own image, in their own life setting, as part of their everyday struggles. It also allows the West to see Christ in Asians, to see Christ all over the world.
On their own, however, Christian artists will have a hard time finding a place in mainstream culture. They will need a lot of support, and Christian churches’ resources tend to be placed heavily on scholarship. This has produced volumes and volumes of books, but the work is only circulated among intellectuals, who nowadays are finding themselves more and more marginalized and less able to influence culture. But art lingers more deeply and permanently than scholarship, in the conscious and subconscious. That’s why it’s heavily employed by big corporations to create their brand of culture. The only institutions Christian artists can turn to are their churches, because they cannot expect big businesses to support their views. If you take Christianity seriously, the position of the Christian artist is in direct opposition to the position of these businesses. It’s a matter of clarity of analysis on the part of the church and of Christians.
Image: You are familiar with the situations of Christian artists throughout Asia. Do you see a breakthrough occurring?
EG: Not at this time. The material produced by the ACAA, for example, circulates more in western society than in Asia. It caters to the search for the exotic on the part of the West. While that helps in elevating the consciousness of westerners—they can see Christ in Asia—what’s more important is that we see Christ in ourselves in Asia. We need to raise the level of awareness. In my experience, no Asian institution is helping artists. Ironically, the ACAA’s sole support has come from Sweden.
Image: What do you see yourself doing as you go forward?
EG: Among the things that the Nagel experience did was to let me see the possibility of engaging the church again. In spite of my misgivings, as a Christian, it is still the main institution to turn to. After Nagel, I organized a conference in Manila on art, imagination, and theology. My friend Rod Pattenden organized another one in Australia, and we have a second conference in Manila coming this February. I wanted to engage the church again and show them that they need to seek the engagement of artists if they want to be part of contemporary society. Artists are at the cutting edge of the development of culture, and the church has to keep up with those developments. In the way people are responding to the conferences, there is a real sense of need for this, and that sustains me, no matter how draining this thing has been physically and mentally and in terms of resources.
Image: What was most significant for you about the Nagel Institute experience?
EG: Among other things, it broke some of my misconceptions and prejudices. With groups I can often be intimidated, or cynical, or hesitant to commit, but the time we spent together opened possibilities of networks, of exchanges of ideas. That revived my energy for the work that connects my art to my context. I realized I’m not alone. Before this, I felt like Don Quixote. After you realize that the adversary is not so overwhelming, there is hope.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.