‘That’s not Jesus’: LDS artists team up to challenge the image of a white Christ

Provo art show will feature diverse paintings by Latter-day Saints from around the world.

Why paint Jesus as a man with dark skin? Because odds are, that’s how he looked. Plus, it’s what he would do.

That’s the philosophy behind an art show opening Feb. 2 at Provo’s Writ & Vision gallery. Titled “Mosaic of Christ,” the exhibition will run through Feb. 24 and is focused entirely on depictions of Jesus chosen based on their “emphasis on cultural expression and historical accuracy,” according to the event’s news release.

“I’m a big proponent of the idea that it’s not wrong to paint Christ as white,” said show juror and participant Esther Hi’ilani Candari, a Latter-day Saint artist who grew up in Hawaii in an Asian American mixed-race household. “What is wrong is when we only take Christ in one way. And that’s what we have at the moment.”

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Esther Hi’ilani Candari sits in her studio with her dog, Gracie, in American Fork in October 2023.

Official and unofficial art produced and adopted by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its members has long portrayed a pale, light-haired Jesus with European features. The problem with this version goes beyond the fact that Jesus was a Middle Eastern man, said Candari, who also works as the art editor for Wayfare magazine.

“From a theological standpoint, if Christ represents the God of the entire world — and from a Latter-day Saint cultural standpoint, if we are truly a global church — then we need iconography that represents that,” the artist explained. “And we don’t currently have that.”

February’s exhibition aims to help remedy this by spotlighting Latter-day Saint artists — many of them people of color — from across the world working to represent Jesus in divergent styles.

(Tyrone Whitehorse) "The Great Creator" by Diné artist Tyrone Whitehorse represents one example of how the show's contributors are infusing elements from their own cultures into their depictions of Jesus.

Included in the lineup are up-and-coming artists, as well as a handful of more established names, among them Walter Rane, Tyrone Whitehorse and Melissa Tshikamba.

The show — organized by Meetinghouse Mosaic, “an inclusive group” of Latter-day Saint women “of all races and cultural backgrounds” — will kick off with a free open house scheduled for Feb. 2 from 6 to 9 p.m. in conjunction with the Provo Art Stroll.

‘That’s not Jesus’

(Rachel Bonner) Rachel Bonner said she struggles to find Latter-day Saint art for her home that either accounts for historical realities of Jesus or allows her mixed-race children to see themselves represented.

As a white Latter-day Saint married to a Black member of the church, Rachel Bonner applauds efforts aimed at breaking the mold that artists have employed for centuries to produce images of Jesus.

The Provo resident and mother of six acknowledged there had been “baby steps” toward more inclusive artwork. Still, she said, she struggles to find Latter-day Saint art for her home that either accounts for historical realities of Jesus or allows her mixed-race children to see themselves represented.

“I see all the cutesy things that talk about Jesus for kids,” she said. “But I’m not going to buy them because I don’t want white Jesus holding brown children.”

When she did finally swap in more diverse imagery of Jesus in her home, Bonner said she found her children’s initial reactions worrying.

“My kids were like,” she said, “‘That’s not Jesus.’”

Having only ever seen Jesus depicted as a white man, they couldn’t believe at first that he could be anything different, Bonner realized. She used that moment to explain to her kids that no one really knows what Jesus looked like and that his skin probably resembled something closer to theirs than hers. But she said the experience left her “a little sad.”

The image of a white man, Bonner acknowledged, isn’t comforting to everyone. Depicting Jesus strictly in those terms, she added, can be “distancing” for those individuals trying to foster a personal connection with him.

George Floyd and post-2020 America

Rose Datoc Dall is a Filipina American artist and, like Candari, one of the show’s jurors and participants.

For most of her career, Dall, who joined the Utah-based church as a teenager, painted Jesus exactly how she had grown up seeing him — fair skinned with honey-colored hair. That changed after the 2020 police killing of the Black man George Floyd and the country’s racial reckoning that followed.

“I was really made aware of things,” she said, “that I sort of didn’t even think about before.”

She took “a big risk” and began posting artwork of a decidedly darker Jesus to her Instagram account, bracing for pushback. Instead, she received a flood of messages, many from fellow Latter-day Saints, thanking her for the new direction. “I kept hearing over and over and over again,” she said, “that it’s about time.”

(Jenna Conlin) Based in rural Louisiana, Jenna Conlin has three paintings in the upcoming show, including the pictured above, titled "Living Waters." As a white artist, Conlin said she tries to use her brush to subvert the “harmful narrative that whiteness is equal to holiness.”

Based in rural Louisiana, Jenna Conlin has thought hard about her role as a white Latter-day Saint who paints religious figurative art. In particular, the artist, who will have three paintings displayed in February’s show, said she tries to use her brush to subvert the “harmful narrative that whiteness is equal to holiness.”

Representing Jesus as the person of color he was, she said, represents “a step toward rooting out prejudice in our religious and spiritual practices.”

‘It’s because we love Christ’

Like Dall, Candari has been heartened by the response she’s seen from her faith community — mostly.

“It’s definitely not been smooth sailing,” Candari said. “There’s a lot of entrenched ideas.”

(Walter Rane) Walter Rane, whose artwork can be found in Latter-day Saint meetinghouses and homes around the world, represents perhaps the most established of the show's artists. In this painting, titled "Whisperings," Mary comforts a young Jesus.

The artist chuckled as she described a call her business partner at Writ & Vision recently received from a man who had heard about the upcoming show. She said the caller had droned on for “like 15 minutes” about how those involved were “committing blasphemy” for painting Jesus as nonwhite.

Other conversations she has on the subject feel productive, Candari said, especially when she’s able to explain that “those of us who are challenging this image, it’s because we love Christ.”

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