A fortnightly column in which Marzanne Slabbert explores the enigmatic fusion of faith and art in South Africa. Join her on an artistic journey and explore the many ways in which God is using the visual arts!
It was an early weekday morning and my calendar reminded me that it was time for my date with Jesus. As I fastened my laces, I felt an exceptional urgency to get to nature, to be alone, to exhale the anxiety in my heart and inhale His peace…
Usually our weekly, early morning dates are on Naval Hill, a landmark in one of the northern suburbs of Bloemfontein. It’s close to my home, offers stunning views of the city, it’s free and I get to see various wildlife like zebra, giraffes and ostriches at arm’s length while I walk and talk to Jesus. (I often think how blessed we are in Bloemfontein, to have a nature reserve in the middle of town!)
But this particular morning, God planned a special surprise for me. Instead of Naval Hill, I decided (or was led to) the koppie at Oliewenhuis, an art museum with hiking trails literally around the corner from me.
It has become a weekly rhytm that I look forward to; a time to recalibrate, voice my concerns, pour out my gratitude and praise. Sometimes I cry, sometimes I laugh, often I perspire and at times I sing!
As I ascended Grant’s Hill, the rhythm of my breathing once again slowly adjusted, the negative voices were replaced by Insight and Wisdom and my mouth was making prayerful noises that only the Holy Spirit understood. Anxiety made way for Peace and Jesus became my central focus once again. As always. I was grateful. Time stood still. It was just me and Jesus — talking, shaking our heads at my silliness for doubting Him and the Holy Spirit recalling Scriptures in my heart.
It was a time of intercession and praying for artists in South Africa and the visual arts as a whole. Repenting on behalf of the wrongs. Prophesying and declaring His truth. “The arts in South Africa belong to Jesus and we claim it by faith!”
Making my way down, I decided to go view the artworks in the gallery.
To my surprise, and I am sure to His delight, the Lord was ready to share more of His heart with me. He blessed me with the viewing of a series by Father Frans Claerhout: Christ and the other person. Naturally, I smiled. He always gives the best presents! From sunrises to art — He knows the language of my heart!
For those of you that are unfamiliar with this artist, Father Claerhout was born in Pitten, Belgium in 1919. After completing his training for priesthood, Claerhout came to South Africa in 1946 and was based in Thaba Nchu (close to Bloemfontein) as Catholic priest and missionary. Claerhout was a founding member of the Bloemfontein Group, and he participated in numerous group exhibitions, and had his first solo exhibition in Johannesburg in 1961. Apart from practising his own art, he played a significant part in developing local talent.
As a self-taught oil painter with no formal training, who came from an artistic family, he painted mostly people, scenes from around the mission stations where he was based, and religious scenes, using a distinct expressionistic style. He was commissioned to paint several murals at mission stations throughout South Africa, including Bloemfontein Schweitzer-Reineke, Thaba ‘Nchu, Potchefstroom and Witsieshoek. Claerhout entered eternity in 2006 at the age of 87.
Claerhout explained this particular series as follows: “The series of Christ and the Other Person is a meditation of Christ and people. What Christ is, cannot be found in research by the human mind. He was HUMAN – with and for man. I feel I do not know much about him, but what I know and feel, that I like. Faith is to be delightfully underage, expectantly. Christ is the same in all his encounters with people, but each time different. A Man for all seasons. He stirred the hearts of all people and in this series are a few (of these people). I hope that , with reference to the Gospel text, the 25 paintings will bring us love and growth. The last picture is the secret of faith: Christ alone. Who is the other person, me, you, us?”
Collectively the artworks highlighted to me the value Jesus places on individuals, that they are worthy of His time and that He understands the human condition. He has compassion. He knows the conversations in the human heart; hears each person’s deepest desires, shares in the heartache, listens to the questions and wants to free the one before Him from their idols… He is our High Priest. He intercedes. He answers. He saves.
Individually, each piece draws you into a conversation between Jesus and someone in the Bible, but it also slowly draws you into a bigger conversation: the conversation between God and humanity. Each piece, a sentence in the case for Jesus. In our need for Him.
Interestingly you are unaware at first that you are more than just a viewer. As you move anti-clockwise through the series, each piece builds on the one before and invites you to consider and reconsider. To meditate.
Then the grand finale! In comparison to all the other paintings, instead of two people depicted there is just one person in the painting — Jesus, looking right at you. Strikingly, you are now the other person! In the final painting He now converses with only you… You can feel how you are ascending the mountain of His grace.
“Jesus – the friend of sinners. Jesus – the friend of me.”
“Christ and the other person” is on show until February 18 at Oliewenhuis Art Museum, Bloemfontein.
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