Lent, Day 33

But he was wounded for our transgressions,
    crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
    and by his bruises we are healed.

—Isaiah 53:5

LOOK: Cuts by Johannes Phokela

Phokela, Johannes_Cuts
Johannes Phokela (South African, 1966–), Cuts, 1990. Acrylic and string on canvas, 83 1/16 × 83 1/16 in. (211 × 211 cm). Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Washington, DC.

For this gruesome artwork, Johannes Phokela slashed a canvas in many spots with a razor, then stitched up the gashes with heavy string. He then painted over the gashes from the back with crimson paint until it bled through, forming a deep red along the seams and a flesh-pink further out, evocative of scar tissue. Then, as if to memorialize the wounds, he painted twenty gold frames over them in rows of five across and four down.

Phokela often uses painted frames or grids as a compositional device in his work. “The grid gives another dimension to the work; it is a device to challenge the viewer’s perception of the image and form beneath,” he said in a 2002 interview with Bruce Haines. “It is intended to have an effect like an ornamental frame surrounding a mirror, or a glass pane mounting a picture. . . . You have to regard it as part of the work, just like the traditional frame of a painting. . . . It gives the work a sort of focal point that can stimulate the viewer’s reaction.”

I was simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by this painting when I saw it exhibited as part of Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue at the Smithsonian in 2014. It is large—almost seven square feet. From a distance the image looks rather rose-like, a concentric arrangement of short red lines slightly curled like petals. It wasn’t until I got closer that I saw it portrays the vulnerability of human flesh, savagely torn.

When I’m at an art museum I like to look at each artwork before reading its label so that I can register my initial impressions and begin to form an interpretation before I receive the curator’s. (I hope you do the same when you encounter artworks on this website!) When I saw this one, I thought of how Christ was wounded for our transgressions, but those wounds became his glory—and ours. In art history Jesus is sometimes shown with light emanating from the holes in his hands, especially in images where he is exalted in heaven. For me, the gold in Cuts suggests a redemptive framework—like it’s asking us to view the horrors of the cross through the lens of glory. In addition, the gold frames within the picture plane seem to emphasize that these wounds are something worthy of being looked at, even meditated upon, as frames show us what’s important, directing our gaze.

Well, here’s what the label said:

On a trip home to South Africa in 1989, Phokela was distressed to see the state of violence that existed as a result of political rivalry and unrest. Disturbed by the bandaged and scarred faces and bodies of his fellow citizens and by the fact that everyone seemed to accept the situation as normal, the artist created a canvas of cuts overlaid with gold frames to distance himself from the violence.

So, Phokela, a Black South African who was born and raised in Soweto but had been living in London since 1987, painted this as a response to the violence of apartheid in his home country. Whomever wrote this text sees the frames as putting us at further remove from the cuts that are represented, as they form an intervening layer between us and them. A legitimate reading, though I haven’t found any statements from Phokela that express this intent. What I did find from him regarding his use of frames in general, I quoted above.

Having learned the particular context out of which this painting arose, I then considered what Jesus’s crucifixion has to say to human suffering today. What relevance has a Galilean man’s torture and execution two thousand years ago to present-day men and women who are beaten and abused?—in this case, because of their race.

Jesus’s death exposed and put to shame the powers of evil, those which assault God and God’s image-bearers. Surely there was much more going on with his death than just that (whole volumes, whole series of volumes, have been written to articulate a theology of the cross). But bringing to light the crimes of humanity—and at the same time, God’s supreme love—is one aspect. Opening up pathways of transformation, healing, reconciliation, and liberation is another.

LISTEN: “By His Wounds” by Bifrost Arts, feat. DM Stith, on He Will Not Cry Out, 2013 | Words by Isaac Wardell, 2011 | Music by Philip Hayes, 1786

By his wounds, his wounds, will we be healed
And for our transgressions, his passion has made us well
Let us come again and feed on him, our Lord Emmanuel

This melody was originally written in the eighteenth century by English composer, organist, singer, and conductor Philip Hayes (1738–1797), who published it in The Muses’ Delight: Catches, Glees, Canzonets, and Canons as a round setting of Psalm 137:1–2 (“By the waters of Babylon . . .”). The song became widely popular after Don McLean recorded it on his 1971 album American Pie and even more so in 2007, when it was used in a memorable montage in the TV series Mad Men.

Isaac Wardell, cofounder of the Bifrost Arts music collective and now director of The Porter’s Gate, put different words to Hayes’s melody in 2011, retaining the canon form. The first two lines reference the well-known Suffering Servant passage from Isaiah 53, and the last is an invitation to come to the Lord’s table—to take in unto ourselves the body and blood of Christ.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s