Saturday, September 5, 2009

Football, Art and Religion

I attended the opening of an exhibition by Port Elizabeth artist, Duncan Stewart, at the Ron Belling art gallery, in the city. The exhibition was entitled “Football: a dialogue for Hope”.

From the invite, it was a bit difficult to know what to expect. On arrival, as I fought my way through the crowds to get in, I saw the Organising Committee’s Danny Jordaan and his wife, Roxanne, whom I knew from many years ago, as a theologian. It was really good to see her again. I remember the level of awe in which we all held her in the 1980s. Women theologians were, then, a rarity. Black women theologians were even rarer. Black women theologians who actually spoke to white theologians and didn’t have a rather large carrot up their rear ends, were probably singular – so I was pleased to see her again. And glad that she remembered me.

To my surprise, she was called upon to open the proceedings with a prayer. I listened closely to her careful choice of words. No “Lord”; no “father God”. Everything she said was deeply generic and inclusive.

Not so with the artist. The artist was clearly a vocal Christian of some description, who did not hesitate to tell us that he was, in some detail. He explained that this was the basis of his art and his exhibition. That is why he had entitled the exhibition “Dialogue for Hope”. He had a very strong feeling that “the Lord would be using the 2010 event to do wonderful things for South Africa”.

I raised the matter with Roxanne Jordaan. I said isn’t it a bit of a problem when there is such a heavy infusion of Christianity into an event such as this? She agreed. She explained that for that reason she had been careful to use as much inclusive language as possible in her prayer. She said that, of course, that is the place where this particular artist, whom she seemed to know fairly well, happens to be – so one should see it as that.

Now, I do wonder about this. Recently, I had the experience of a sponsor – a very large FIFA partner (which for the sake of momentary charity on my part will remain nameless) stood up on the state at a Public Viewing Area and asked the audience to please bow their heads. I thought I had heard wrong. But no, he ploughed on relentlessly. “Father God”, he continued, “We would just like to thank you for bringing us to this place, Lord, and blessing us so mightily”. At this point I was frantically calling the event organiser to shut him up and get him forcibly removed from the stage. But no, he continued – “And Jesus, I just wanna ask you to bless each and every person here tonight and to pour your Holy Spirit into their lives”. And so it continued and continued. He ended with the flourish of telling the assembled people of Plettenberg Bay that he loved each and every one of them and he prayed God would bless them powerfully. By the time I had reached the stage to physically drag him off it, if need be, he was gone.

The sheer arrogance of the man was astonishing. This was, after all, a government event. We are, thank God, a secular state. Nevertheless, he thought it appropriate to impose his peculiar form of Christian belief on the crowd, simply because he was in the kind of position of power that gave him access to the microphone.

Now I am not suggesting the same for Duncan Stewart, who seemed to me to be entirely sincere in what he was doing and entirely within his rights. The only point I am making, is that in these kinds of public spaces, there is a level of appropriateness which becomes extraordinarily difficult when a fairly overtly, and singular, religious position is brandished.

Stewart's work is fairly subtle in this regard. There are hints and flashes of Christian themes all over the place. For instance, the charcoal drawing he gave to Danny Jordaan as a gift was an aerial view of the Port Elizabeth stadium – but with a large plastic fork in the middle of it, making it look very much like an aluminium airline dinner server. The title of that work is “Feeding the Multitudes”.

Generally, Stewart’s art was not my taste. I find this kind of slightly sentimental, hidden allusion stuff, rather irritating. But there was one piece which, I have to say, blew me away. In the crush, I almost tripped over it – it was a bronze piece, lying in a corner of the staircase. No title. A street child, lying on a piece of cardboard. A discarded KFC box (I think it should have been MacDonalds, as a FIFA sponsor) and a crushed Coke can lying nearby. The child is asleep, and clutching a football. It is a brilliant piece. It is evocative. It is touching. It speaks to the very heart of the matter.

The rest, with titles like “Bafana Bafana 2040” were really, to my mind anyway, just a bit too sentimental and just a bit too obvious. But that one piece, will live with me forever. That is real art, to my mind. That is the essence of religion.

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