What constitutes an act of desecration? The work of Detroit-based artist Tony Rave has exposed controversial discussions of this question and the implications of reconfiguring religiously themed objects by combining them with imagery from popular and mass culture.
Rave’s collection includes a series of white porcelain cherubs and other statues, busts, and figures of the Virgin Mary — all in Blackface. Some of these figurines are standalone pieces while others combine ephemeral images of the Mother with pornography of women in glass encasings. Some other works are assembled into larger craftings that include vestiges of brand name products: empty bottles of Hennessy, Newport menthol cigarette packs, baking soda boxes, the Nike emblem, a painted face of Colonel Sanders, and logos such as Gucci and Louis Vuitton.
In its modern definition, desecrating is not merely the destruction or disrespect of sacred objects, but inherently the notion of also depriving them of their sacred character. However, the word “desecrate” comes from the Latin desecrare, meaning “to make holy” with the “de-” prefix meaning “from” or “concerning,” as opposed to undoing or being the opposite of. Arguably, Rave’s work does not de-sanctify the image of the Virgin, but re-sanctifies its symbolic nature by dismantling the long-term systematization of female holiness as purely White. With Mary in Blackface, drooling blood red paint, we are reminded of the complicated history of how art performs sanctity, and that the worship of holy idols and images — including Mary’s female body — does not only belong to a European Christian belief system.
The use of sacred subjects in and around art has always been a controversial topic, and one with a long-ranging history in the premodern world. We are reminded of the violent efforts of Byzantine iconoclasm of the 8th and 9th centuries and the Bildersturm of the Reformation, which argued that the making and using of images for Christian worship contradicted the word of the Bible and the Second Commandment. We also know that different sects of Christianity have different rules about the place of idols and religious paintings in churches, if any. Despite these debates, cults of saints were and still are worshiped, and prayed to like gods; and churches still contain paintings of saints, stories from the Bible, and statues of holy figures — the early intentions of which were to convey scripture to an illiterate public. Similar conversations around representation can also be seen in the history of theatre, where the depiction and characterization of God on the stage was also highly debated.
In the 13th century, Western Europe experienced a significant shift in representations of women and their role in society. This period saw a rise in the vernacular language (as opposed to Church Latin), and subsequently the production of romance tales, which included elements from the so-called “East” influenced by cross-cultural contact of Europeans with Southwest Asian and North African (SWANA) communities, primarily as a result of the crusading advancements from Western Europe. These factors reshaped the way devotion practices of and by women were represented in manuscripts and visual culture. Most specifically — because orientalist images of women aligned the “East” with fetishized exoticism — Western Europe art ontologically reframed the image of virginity within their own morally ethical parameters, linking a White female body to piety and devotion in Latin Christianity. The main figure then became the image of a White Holy Mother of God, now objectified and trapped in a male-gazing desire.
Rave’s work reminds us that the metaphorical qualities attached to the female body extended beyond those imposed by Western European colonial practices; that across Europe and the world, icons, shrines, and statues of the Black Madonna or the Black Virgin have been erected and worshiped for a long time as equal counterparts. The work also conveys that piety is not purely White; that the allegorical symbolism of Mary — also one of the most important female figures in Islam — functioned emblematically as a reminder of women’s important role in spiritual culture. The lamentation of the Virgin, for example, and the shift in her metaphorical representations align with historical changes in a world which embraced goddesses as equal to gods, where women played an active and significant role in ritual culture, specifically the practice of lamentation, when women negotiated the faith of their communities with the gods. That’s until it was usurped by a male monotheism.
If all this constitutes an act of desecration, then perhaps it is time for us to reexamine how and what our society is worshiping.