Visio divina with Aaron Douglas’s “The Creation”

On September 15 I was invited by North Decatur Presbyterian Church in Georgia to lead a visio divina exercise during their morning worship services. Visio divina, or sacred seeing, is the practice of gazing on an image and opening yourself up to receive the gift that it holds. I approach images this way all the time, and while some people formalize the practice with a set of steps to follow, timed silences, restrictions, and such, my approach is a bit looser.

Because Pastor David Lewicki was preaching on Genesis 2, I chose Aaron Douglas’s painting The Creation. The leadership had already programmed in a reading of the James Weldon Johnson poem that directly inspired the painting, so introducing this visual corollary seemed particularly appropriate.

Note: I disagree with the popular notion, perpetuated by Johnson, that God created humanity because he was lonely; because he is in himself a loving community of Three, he did not lack companionship. Lewicki addresses this concern somewhat in his sermon and rightfully notes how the Genesis 2 creation account presents a God who is closer to humanity and the created world (he digs in the dirt!) and more vulnerable and improvisational than the God we meet in Genesis 1. I don’t believe Johnson’s beautiful poem should be scrapped because of those two (in my opinion) theologically problematic lines, but discretion should be used before presenting it in a worship context. For example, this wouldn’t fly at my church. The NDPC congregation, however, is more welcoming of imaginative engagements with the biblical story that might challenge traditional readings, so those lines were not for them impediments to worship, and I appreciated that Lewicki commented on them in his sermon, wondering about the “holy longing” the Creator must have felt for us.

Below are Johnson’s poem, Douglas’s image, and the transcript of my contribution, which I peppered with substantial pauses. To promote a better visio divina experience on your computer, I’d recommend right-clicking the image and selecting “Open link in new window,” then split-screening that window with this one; that way, you can more easily reference the image while you read. (In the future, I will try to produce audio for exercises like these.)

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Douglas, Aaron_Creation
Aaron Douglas (American, 1899–1979), The Creation, 1935. Oil on Masonite, 48 × 36 in. Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

“The Creation” by James Weldon Johnson

And God stepped out on space,
And he looked around and said:
I’m lonely—
I’ll make me a world.

And far as the eye of God could see
Darkness covered everything,
Blacker than a hundred midnights
Down in a cypress swamp.

Then God smiled,
And the light broke,
And the darkness rolled up on one side,
And the light stood shining on the other,
And God said: That’s good!

Then God reached out and took the light in his hands,
And God rolled the light around in his hands
Until he made the sun;
And he set that sun a-blazing in the heavens.
And the light that was left from making the sun
God gathered it up in a shining ball
And flung it against the darkness,
Spangling the night with the moon and stars.
Then down between
The darkness and the light
He hurled the world;
And God said: That’s good!

Then God himself stepped down—
And the sun was on his right hand,
And the moon was on his left;
The stars were clustered about his head,
And the earth was under his feet.
And God walked, and where he trod
His footsteps hollowed the valleys out
And bulged the mountains up.

Then he stopped and looked and saw
That the earth was hot and barren.
So God stepped over to the edge of the world
And he spat out the seven seas—
He batted his eyes, and the lightnings flashed—
He clapped his hands, and the thunders rolled—
And the waters above the earth came down,
The cooling waters came down.

Then the green grass sprouted,
And the little red flowers blossomed,
The pine tree pointed his finger to the sky,
And the oak spread out his arms,
The lakes cuddled down in the hollows of the ground,
And the rivers ran down to the sea;
And God smiled again,
And the rainbow appeared,
And curled itself around his shoulder.

Then God raised his arm and he waved his hand
Over the sea and over the land,
And he said: Bring forth! Bring forth!
And quicker than God could drop his hand,
Fishes and fowls
And beasts and birds
Swam the rivers and the seas,
Roamed the forests and the woods,
And split the air with their wings.
And God said: That’s good!

Then God walked around,
And God looked around
On all that he had made.
He looked at his sun,
And he looked at his moon,
And he looked at his little stars;
He looked on his world
With all its living things,
And God said: I’m lonely still.

Then God sat down—
On the side of a hill where he could think;
By a deep, wide river he sat down;
With his head in his hands,
God thought and thought,
Till he thought: I’ll make me a man!

Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of his hand;
This Great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till he shaped it in his own image;
Then into it he blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.
Amen. Amen.

This poem was originally published in The Book of American Negro Poetry, ed. James Weldon Johnson (1922), and subsequently in God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse by James Weldon Johnson (1927).

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We are filled with the divine breath; we breathe God.

Take a moment to meditate on Aaron Douglas’s painting The Creation, made in response to the James Weldon Johnson poem that was just read.

What colors do you notice? What shapes? What movement? What shimmers for you in this image? Whatever it is, fix your eyes there. Now expand your gaze to encompass the whole image.

For me, what shimmers are the purples and blues, and especially the hand of God that reaches through the undulating atmosphere. In this image, creation swirls and dances, rises and rolls—the colors river every which way. Eight spheres—the planets, perhaps—float playfully like bubbles. It’s all a wondrous, dynamic, primordial burst of life, and we’re a part of it.

At the bottom, man emerges plant-like from the shadows, his face extending into an arc of light, the light of God. His feet are planted in the soil of earth, but heaven blazes all around him. He is an amphibious creature, belonging to both worlds, which here are united.

The poet uses maternal language to describe God’s ultimate creative act, saying that he knelt down at a riverbank and gently scooped up clay from its bed—then, like a mother coddling her baby, he formed humanity. Majesty stooping down in tenderness.

“Then into it he blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.
Amen. Amen.”

Jesus comes to Singapore: The New Testament imagery of Eugene Soh

In 2010 Eugene Soh was enrolled in Nanyang Technological University’s School of Art, Design, and Media, on track to becoming a game programmer, when Campus magazine, aware of his photography hobby, asked him if he’d like to contribute a centerfold to an upcoming issue. He said yes but, after combing through his photos, realized he had nothing great to offer—he’d have to shoot something new, something epic. He chose to restage Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper at Maxwell Road Hawker Centre (a “hawker center,” or kopitiam, is what Singaporeans call their open-air food courts), using vendors as models for Christ and his disciples.

The Last Kopitiam by Eugene Soh
Eugene Soh (Singaporean, 1987–), The Last Kopitiam, 2010. Photograph, 140 × 230 cm.

The photo was published but went without much notice until two years later in 2012, when it went viral online. Galleries started contacting him to do shows, not realizing that The Last Kopitiam was a one-off thing. Soh decided to finish out his concentration in interactive media, graduating in 2013, and then to pursue fine art photography as a career.

Encouraged by the interest in his Leonardo adaptation, Soh translated more Western art masterpieces into a contemporary Singaporean idiom, among them the Mona Lisa (renamed Moh Lee Sha), The School of Athens (Food for Thought), The Birth of Venus (Arrival of Venus), Saturn Devouring His Son (Saturn Devouring His Naan), A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Singapore), Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (Arrangement in Grey, Black and Yellow), and American Gothic (Singapore Gothic).

His Creation of Ah Dam, after Michelangelo’s famous Sistine Chapel ceiling fresco, shows a wet-market grocer transferring the spark of life to “Ah Dam” via carrot.

Creation of Ah Dam by Eugene Soh
Eugene Soh (Singaporean, 1987–), Creation of Ah Dam, 2015. Photograph, 80 × 120 cm.

It is Soh’s process, as demonstrated in these photos, to shoot his human subjects separately and then stitch them together digitally to create a single composite image. The hawkers in The Last Kopitiam, for example, couldn’t all get away from their stalls at the same time, so this sort of cut-and-paste manipulation was born out of necessity. At first Soh was resistant to using Photoshop in this way, thinking of it as “cheating,” but he quickly became convinced of its legitimacy and artistic potential.

Earlier this year Soh developed a new series called The Second Coming, which reenvisions the life of Christ on Singaporean soil (much like David LaChapelle did, for America, in his 2003 series Jesus Is My Homeboy). Mounted as a solo show in February and March at Chan Hampe Galleries, The Second Coming draws on familiar devotional image types, like the Madonna and Child, the Crucifixion, and the Pietà, as well as invents some new ones, like Jesus answering his cell (Hold Up, Dad’s Calling) or helping one of his hosts prepare dinner (What’s Cooking, Jesus?).

In Happy Birthday & Merry Christmas, Jesus, Jesus blows out the candles on his cake. The mise-en-scène includes a foam crown, maracas, and an umbrella drink.

Happy Birthday & Merry Christmas, Jesus by Eugene Soh
Eugene Soh (Singaporean, 1987–), Happy Birthday & Merry Christmas, Jesus, 2016. Photograph, 140 × 140 cm.

In contrast, the mood of The Last Christmas is gloom and doom. According to the artist, Jesus has just announced that he is going to destroy the world, putting a damper on the birthday festivities (though one attendee chooses to make light of the news). Staged like a Last Supper, this imagined scene takes place immediately preceding Armageddon. It’s everyone’s last Christmas. Continue reading “Jesus comes to Singapore: The New Testament imagery of Eugene Soh”