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Art with its herald voice is calling

20 December 2019

Ayla Lepine explores Advent themes in contemporary art


Refugee Astronaut III by Yinka Shonibare (2019)

Refugee Astronaut III by Yinka Shonibare (2019)

ADVENT is full of images of expectation, light, and the slow unfurling of the holy truth that the infant concealed and nourished in Mary’s womb will arrive to be Emmanuel, God with us. As the Advent hymn says, “God in time, God in man, this is God’s timeless plan.” Visual art, like poetry and music, allows the imagination and the Bible to converge, and allows one person’s insights to inspire, challenge, and question many.

Michael Ramsey wrote that God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is “the God for whom none of the traditional images are adequate and all of them are necessary to convey a reality greater than themselves”. Moreover, art points to “a way past dread utility”, as Catherine Pickstock has put it, to how “human work can be shaped by and re-entwined in nature’s simpler if awesome flourishing.”

Advent is the season of longing for the light of Christ to enter the world afresh, even as that light glimmers in every heart, as each believer, it is hoped, grows into a fuller awareness of being “fearfully and wonderfully made” by the Creator.

Isaiah’s promise of liberation, hope, and salvation is heard again; and the ancient names of Wisdom, Key of David, and Dayspring suggest images of promise. With a bit of effort, perhaps, nostalgia or the lure of Christmas shopping can be subverted by Advent’s truths of mortality, eternity, and the world’s darker corners.

Contemporary artists such as Kara Walker, Olafur Eliasson, and Mona Hatoum can take us into the theology of Advent and breath new life into it. Barbed wire, bin bags, water, and bread — these are not the themes of the wreaths of Advent candles in our churches, but they are materials that artists have used recently to draw attention to the One who is coming. These artists have been the foundation of a recent series of Advent discussions at Hampstead Parish Church, in London.


THE One who lived and died and lived again proclaims: “My Kingdom is not of this world.” In our minds, hearts, and bodies, we live to God’s glory in our earthbound limitations. Citizens of heaven, we are also, like Emmanuel, born in a time and place, and live out the inescapable realities of human frailty.

The Wellcome Collection, in London, has recently opened a new gallery, Being Human. The curator, Clare Barlow, has created rooms filled with objects that make connections between medical technology, health, philosophy, the environment, and diversity. The New York Times recently suggested that this museum’s exhibition was possibly the most accessible in the world for disabled people.

Earlier this year, a journalist who uses a wheelchair, Ciara O’Connor, describe the difficulties that she had encountered when trying to enter a mirrored tunnel in Eliasson’s “In Real Life” exhibition at Tate Modern. She said: “Accessibility is not ugly, or cluttered or distracting. Accessibility belongs in art and everywhere.”

Advent reminds us that, as we wait for the birth of Jesus, we should see every human being as precious in God’s eyes, and ensure that inclusion is a priority, because of the radically inclusive incarnation in which the Son of God is born for the whole of humanity, not just for a privileged few.

MACIEJ URBANEKHS, by Maciej Urbank (2014), in St Michael’s, Camden Town

The Being Human gallery includes Refugee Astronaut, a sculpture by Yinka Shonibare, who not only accepted his CBE, but uses it alongside his name to claim boldly this accolade as a black artist. This sculpture is clothed in Dutch wax-printed cotton, historically exported to West Africa, and often used to signify national pride and independence. The figure is laden with possessions in a net heaved on to the astronaut’s back. There are a frying pan, a telescope, a suitcase, photos, and more. Where are these refugees going? Did they leave in a hurry? Are they earthbound, at the edge of home, or suspended in space? What do they seek?

It is an apocalyptic image, which reminds the viewer that “home” is an increasingly elusive concept for millions around the world at this politically and environmentally chaotic time. In Advent, the Holy Family are on the move, making their way towards Bethlehem on an arduous journey that will take them far from home. Meanwhile, the Magi follow the star, far from their distant homeland, too.


THE Bible tells us that we are all one body in Christ. We are nourished by the eucharist and the Church. Antony Gormley’s Mother’s Pride IV, which is part of his Bread Works series, speaks of longing, desire, and hunger. The title is a play on the name for a mass-produced cheap white bread, in a way that recalls the pop artist Sister Corita Kent, whose eucharist-themed artwork made reference to the brand Wonderbread in the 1960s.

Gormley’s bread is preserved with a wax coating, which gives it the uncanny mild sheen of food seen in advertisements: both strangely appealing but inedible, for display purposes only. This bread is now nine years old, and will not decay with time. The body both encased and outlined in the bread, a present absence, is modelled — as most of the artist’s work is — on Gormley’s own body.

The wall-mounted sculpture is huge: a life-size grown man in a foetal position, lying on his side, both isolated by and held by the bread grid. On the wall, the figure also looks as though he is falling, suspended within cheap carbohydrates that appear not as the bread of life, but the bread of death. The blank space that defines the shape of the man is demarcated by a series of precise bite-marks, signs of satisfied hunger, at least for a while. This body is some mother’s son.

After the feeding of the five thousand, people follow Jesus because they perceive that he is a source of bread. With all that bread on offer, it makes the deeper message more challenging to perceive: that he is, in fact, the Living Bread, the Bread of Heaven, and the source of eternal spiritual nourishment. More than that, Christ himself is the sacrificial meal.

The bread that appears to be missing in Mother’s Pride IV draws attention to the body and blood of the Christlike figure in the centre precisely because the viewer cannot see what this person is really like. He is curled in on himself as if at rest, or in the womb, or presented as a sacrifice. This is an image that asks where true nourishment comes from, and from whom it flows.


THE theme of the Four Last Things — death, judgement, heaven, and hell — illuminates the histories and legacies of racism in Kara Walker’s installation at Tate Modern, Fons Americanus. Walker has presented the work as a “gift . . . to the heart of an Empire that redirected the fates of the world”.

She signed it “Kara Walker, NTY” (i.e. “Not Titled Yet”), to make a link with British honours such as the OBE (Order of the British Empire). The British spoken-word performer George the Poet refused an MBE recently because of the history of colonialism and slavery, explaining that he wanted people to “really understand how damaging the legacy of British colonialism has been on the African continent”.

TATE/MATT GREENWOODFons Americanus by Kara Walker (2019)

Walker’s sculpture is based on the fountain at Buckingham Palace, and the Dominion Gates, erected in memory of Queen Victoria after her death in 1901. Walker, as a black woman artist, joins the chorus of writers, musicians, and artists — including Maya Angelou, Nina Simone, Toni Morrison, and Angela Davis — whose powerful words draw attention to the toxicity of racism, often at huge risk and significant cost. There is still much further to go and much to learn.

The Transatlantic slave trade is invoked and depicted in multiple ways in Walker’s work. It is a vast monument to the destructive aspects of British colonialism. The fountain is built on, and out of, enslaved bodies. Slaves thrown overboard — referring to the human cargo that was jettisoned during rough Atlantic crossings — are encircled by sharks and crying in agony. The shark-infested water that they swim and drown in originates in the perpetual flow from the breasts of the figure of an enslaved black woman, towering over the mass of liquid and solid forms.

The sound of the fountain — associated with triumph, pleasure, commemoration, and decoration — is an ironic sound, as the flow of water makes connections with the flow of blood and the ongoing torrent of racism and white supremacy. Walker writes: ‘‘My work has always been a time machine looking backwards across decades and centuries to arrive at some understanding of my ‘place’ in the contemporary moment.”

In this artwork, she gives no solutions or answers. She confronts, scrutinises, and accuses. She positions this artwork deliberately at the heart of the British Empire’s epicentre, not far from the fountain that inspired it. Walker is drawing on the deep cultural histories of matriarchs, the biblical promise of liberation, to spotlight the continuing need to transform racial prejudice into shared understanding and give proper and deep attention to the lives of BAME people.

In the art world, which, like the Church of England, is still predominantly white, Walker is a voice crying in the wilderness, like John the Baptist, both embraced by the Establishment and insisting rightly on the need to subvert it. Anthony Reddie, James Cone, and Reni Eddo Lodge and others have been calling for racial justice in Church and society for decades.

When Walker’s work is read not just as an installation in Tate Modern, but an intervention in religious discourse that remains entangled in racial injustice, we are invited to engage with it as an Advent artwork, too. Its water, like a perpetual gush of enraged tears, flows with longing for a Church and a world characterised by true freedom. Fons Americanus is a sign of hope as well as piercing wonder. Its presence at Tate Modern signals a growing capacity to listen, learn, and change.


ADVENT is a time to repent of sin, search for the light, and wait for it. Watchful for signs of hope, Christians are, at times, all too aware that their sense of direction and clarity can be fragile or absent.

This is part of God’s world and the stuff of which we are made. In her new book, In the Bleak Midwinter: Advent and Christmas with Christina Rossetti (Books, 25 October), Canon Rachel Mann observes that “God invites us into a way of living that is so utterly open to the fragile that it always walks towards death rather than away from it.”

The Danish artist and environmental activist Eliasson designed Your Blind Passage to offer people a sublime experience of being lost and held simultaneously. A corridor filled with cloudy vapour and diffuse lights of various colours and intensities creates fog so thick that visibility is extremely limited.

PAA gallery employee explores Your Blind Passenger (2010) during the preview of “Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life” at Tate Modern earlier this year

In the corridor, visitors know rationally that the fog is odourless and tasteless, and has no effect on breathing, and yet people involuntarily cough. Visitors know that the immersive experience is a wholly safe one, filled with people. And yet, because of the effect of walking through pure colour and daring to press on through opaque cloud, there is sublime fear, not unlike holy awe. Visitors are both alone and together. Some are unable to keep walking for a time, and need to look down, or find a wall to hold on to. Some take endless selfies, becoming little islands of excited self-regard which need to be navigated by others moving forward one step at a time.

Emerging into the normal gallery rooms, greeted by a smiling attendant, feels utterly anti-climactic as well as a tangible relief. After walking tentatively, being dazzled and surrounded by thick opacity, there is a return to the world, but the participant has somehow been changed deep within. This is a quintessential Advent experience. It is, however, the same exhibition as was criticised strongly (and rightly) by O’Connor for not being accessible to wheelchair-users.

Down the road in Camden Town, in north London, Maciej Urbanek’s HS was installed on the west wall of St Michael’s in 2014 (News, 4 December 2015). It won the biannual Art and Christianity Award in 2015. The parish found it so powerful that, although it was meant to be temporary, it remained on the wall.

The process for making the large-scale image was a simple one: Urbanek took bin bags, scrunched them up, and photocopied them. These abstract images, printed on inexpensive paper and pasted on boards, covered a damaged wall behind the church’s Victorian font, creating a huge series of patterns and angles that conjure up the light of the Holy Spirit at the baptism of Christ and at Pentecost.

Using technology from the office, not the art studio, the aesthetic impact is provocatively Baroque. Instead of gold leaf and frilly stucco, however, there are metres of black toner. The light of Christ we await in Advent is made bolder by the stark blackness that defines it. “For God who said, ‘Let there be light’ has shone in our hearts” (2 Corinthians 4.6). In this medium, the striking white of heavenly light is, in fact, negative space. The dark areas are full of ink, and the white areas are empty. Like Gormley’s bread figure, shape, meaning, and sacred presence seem to develop out of nothing rather than something.


THE borderlands between presence and absence surge with meaning in Mona Hatoum’s work, too. A Palestinian UK-based artist, her work focuses on politics, feminism, and the body. Her installation Impenetrable was completed in 2009. Its barbed wire suspended from near-invisible wires creates the impression of a semi-permeable cube suspended in space. It is strangely alluring, inviting the viewer to touch and even to enter. It could be entered and touched, but to do so would draw blood; and yet it is not impenetrable, exactly. It is penetrated by air, molecules, and the bodies of others. Those who look through it do penetrate it with their gaze, if not their bodies.

The installation photo shows it in the room alone, but viewers in the gallery walking around it can, indeed, be seen through the little gaps in this barbed-wire forest. There are connotations of conflict, too. Barbed wire is an accessory of war, and Hatoum is a survivor of the Lebanese war, who also carries the reality of Palestinian experience into her artwork.


Hatoum is, like Walker and Shonibare, focused on racial justice, and points out that “There are common political forces and attitudes that discriminate against people,” which intersect across many oppressed groups whose lives are characterised by marginalisation and suffering. Those who interact with this artwork catch glimpses of each other through the barrier of barbed wire. Its spiky sheen defines the boundaries that keep people — all made in the image of God — apart from one another and drawn too often into conflict and violence.

Advent is a time to rediscover the light that God places within each of us, and to be thankful for the immeasurable grace and love that God offers. This is no easy task. To do so is to confront the inner and outer barbed wire that each of us carries within us and that we wrap around ourselves. Impenetrable is a meditation on what it would be like if barbed wire, physically and spiritually, no longer tore us apart. As we pray in the Advent Prose, “Drop down ye heavens from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness.”

The Revd Dr Ayla Lepine is an art historian and Assistant Curate of Hampstead Parish Church. Twitter: @heartchitecture.

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