Art, Faith and Burden

Zach Stewart is a talented artist and deep thinker whose work explores topics such as whiteness, colonisation, lament, faith, justice and humanity — among other things. Zach matriculated at the end of last year and his final matric art project (of which the pieces included here are part) explored the topic ‘burden’. We asked Zach a few questions about this body of work and what inspired it, and include those reflections below.

What inspired this body of work?

Last year- my matric year- the theme for the final, national art project was “burden”. I did a lot of digging. Really it’s a brilliant topic. In South Africa (in the world) there’s a lot to work with, and what a way to engage with this question. I immediately went to the burden of whiteness in our country (and others), the burden of colonization, the burden of people being supported by millions of others based on violations of humanity. I went to the environment and how depressing it is – how it feels like we’re not even fighting that hard in a battle that sets the odds against us anyway. To the violence against immigrants and refugees, and to the violence against LGBTQIA+ people. To the glorification of empire… Really, there’s a lot to work with.

And then I went to the church, and tied all these things together. Somehow, we as the church (yeah let’s claim our family so that we can take some responsibility) have managed to justify and bloody our hands in some of the worst injustices of history. From the Doctrine of Discovery that declared colonization to the glory of God, to the Dutch Reformed Church providing a theological basis for apartheid, to any number of current tragedies. In the name of Christ’s love.

Obviously something drastic needs to change theologically. Therefore, in order to place these ideas in intimate proximity with each other and reveal the place of hypocrisy (this is something I think about a lot in art), I literally put those who have been excluded and violated by Christianity, in the Bible.

How has your process regarding this work impacted your faith journey?

As a side note, this is my favourite part of the creative journey; asking a question and then exploring the far reaches of its realm. In this project I would say I came across some things:

The theologies that create and justify injustice and empire are not strong. They don’t hold up when they’re bent against the reality of humanity and the longing for real good news. They are weak theologies applied forcefully. Perhaps inhuman theologies.

Originally I was gonna draw the faces of the oppressors in the Bible. That would have been a different project that would be powerful in its own way. Honestly I got bored at the idea of drawing a lot of white men. However, in the process I began to work with the idea that the Bible is more a home for the oppressed than the oppressors. That is hope.

The overall impact is hard to say. I think that I continue to recognize where pain from the world fits into the pages of that book, and thus into how we might live for the liberation of all things. Really this means that lament is more ever-present in me.

What are some of your hopes for the church going forward?

To be honest, I wonder how relevant the greater institution of the church will ever be (I say with all my PhDs and in-depth studying ). Maybe that’s said out of a place of ignorance. But really, it is a struggle. Is Christianity the religion redeemable? Is it too tied to the empire? I dunno. I’m young. Yes and no. There are people who have found life in its complicated folds. But I think we all need to understand how easy it is for many of us to give up on Christianity, for all the people that it has given up on. That recognition is more important than the question of whether or not to give up on the church.

I’m much more enamoured with small groups of people seeking to do life together, to do justice, and relationships and eating and questioning and crying and learning together. And sometimes, maybe even dying together. And then the interactions with other small groups. And taking responsibility for our people. I hope church gets messier and humaner and more communal.

Right now, hope is completely different to what I thought it was a few years ago. I’ve left the green pastures of “everythingisgoingtobealright and godisincontrol”. I’m so done with this hope that denies people their pain. Instead, I hope that we can get better at pain and lament. To do anything but that is to deny reality. We need to be in this because we are committed to the liberation of all things even if we are doomed to fail, and not because we want to “go to heaven”. Let’s build heaven. Because look around. Hell is everywhere.

In this, we might start to redefine hope.

Woven into all of this, I hope we can move towards seeing everyone as holy. As human. As made in the image of God. All of us variables. And therefore that we will see that God is as variable as we are.

I am still working out what my relationship to faith is, but I don’t think that I can separate that from faith. I’m just wandering. But I am (often reluctantly) noticing where I find life. And so, though I never thought I’d say this (see how young I am) I hope we will learn to engage this book right. And there is a right.

Note to audience: My aim wasn’t to victimize people. It was to lament pain in the world. Getting closer to the cross isn’t about getting close to pain for pains sake. It’s about getting close to people who are living with the pain of the world. It’s about people not pain. And it’s about living in a way that grounds us in reality. In that way of living, we might learn that crucifixion is not strange in this world, but all around us.

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