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Colourful ecumenism

06 August 2004

By Juan Michel (*)

Free photo available, see below.

Those who imagine theological discussions to be arid debates better suited to grey, badly lit cloisters would certainly have been surprised during the recent World Council of Churches (WCC) Faith and Order plenary commission meeting.

Whoever reached the second floor of the central hotel in Kuala Lumpur where the commission met from 28 July to 6 August was met by a brilliant explosion of colour. On their way to different meetings, participants and visitors in fact had to tread on colourful mosaics that represented the traditional decorative welcome mats that greet guests as they enter Malaysian homes.

Moreover, during the two-week-long meeting, Malaysian artists exhibited their work in the lobby of the second floor of the historic Federal Hotel. There, the nearly 100 members of the commission and some 30 guests, observers and representatives from local churches, had the opportunity to enjoy the art, coffee in hand, during the meeting breaks .

After exchanging so many words, the opportunity to contemplate paintings, photographs and sculpture allowed them to open themselves to another language, one that is perhaps more ambiguous but certainly appeals to other dimensions of the human experience.

A gift from God

Tan Chee Hon is a young painter and photographer of Chinese origin, a member of the St Andrews Presbyterian Church. One of his works in the exhibition is an 70x50 oil painting, in which a crown of thorns, painted in black and white brushstrokes, stands out against a furious red, applied with a palette knife. “For me, the crown represents, in a unique way, Christ, who sacrificed himself for our sins” said Chee Hon. “Painting it is my own way of expressing inner compassion.”

Chee Hon comes from Muar, a small town in Johor, close to Singapore, and teaches art in a private Chinese school. “Creativity is a gift of God,” he said and “I hope that my work as a teacher encourages new generations to appreciate art and be committed to it.”

Rev. Chong Keng Sen is pastor of the Hope Evangelical Free Church and advisor to the Malaysian Christian Artists Fellowship, which organized the exhibition. Rev. Chong’s church is a member of the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship, and not of the Council of Churches of Malaysia, which hosted the Faith and Order meeting. “I don’t believe in segregation, which is why I am here,” he said. “I have the conviction that we have to serve God in whatever capacity.”

Perhaps his presence is also due to the fact that, in his words, "evangelicals in Malaysia tend to be weak in cultural aspects, with a rather iconoclastic attitude towards culture, emphasizing only its negative side". Having been an artist since before becoming a Christian, Chong affirms that "culture is part of being human, a gift that God has given us to express humanity, including faith". Four of his works in the exhibition are tangible proof of the affirmation.

Bridging theology and art

The exhibition, including 27 works by 15 artists, was sponsored by the Asian Christian Art Association. Founded in 1978 in Bali, Indonesia, the association has branches in more than 10 countries in the region. Its objectives are to encourage artists to express Christian concern through their work and to witness to Christian faith in Asia. Soichi Watanabe and Hanna Varghese are among its most renowned members.

Marthen Tahun, an Indonesian photographer, is part of the association’s small editorial team and he is enthusiastic about its work. "One of its main tasks is to build a bridge between theologians and artists: to provide the artists with input regarding, for instance, interpretation of the Bible, and to enrich the theologians in their preaching."

In order to carry out its objectives, the association organizes workshops about art and Christian faith. Artists participate alongside theologians and students, as well as members of the churches. The last one, held at the theology faculty of Duta Wacana Christian University in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, was attended by 23 participants.

The experience made him "very happy, as life is not as hard as it looks", said the dean of the faculty, Rev. Gerrit Singgih, about his participation in the workshop. It was important, he said, to be able to "see artists painting their canvasses and groups of people watching quietly what they were doing, and asking questions when there were things they did not understand" .

One of the association's most important instruments is a quarterly magazine, Image, which it has been publishing since 1979. The publication features articles about Asian art, and reproductions of its members’ work appear alongside commentaries and analysis written by theologians and academics.

"Colour is not only light, colour is life," wrote anthropologist and theologian Farsijana Adeney-Risakotta in the most recent edition of the magazine. Commenting on the work of women artists who participated in the above-mentioned workshop, she affirmed: "It can strike people's attention to feel that the piece of art is actually about their own struggle, their suffering, their hope…"

The association also organizes exhibits that have travelled to different countries in Asia, Europe and America. It offers a scholarship programme for aspiring young artists, produces publications and maintains a web site (www.asianchristianart.org) where you can find profiles of the artists and a magnificent gallery of their works (don’t miss the section about the Resurrection).

Art, as the renowned ecumenist and Japanese art critic Masao Takenaka said, is “a creative response to God’s work”. And art was present from the outset of this Faith and Order plenary commission meeting, not only in the art exhibit but in Hanna Varghese’s splendid batik that embellished the meeting room, reminding participants of the theme of the event: "Receive one another, as Christ has received you, for the glory of God" (Romans 15:7).

Without doubt, the creative responses to the dilemmas of Christian unity that the commission may have found in Kuala Lumpur are indebted to art.

(*) Juan Michel is the press officer of the World Council of Churches.

Free photos, news items and feature stories are available at the meeting website at:

www.wcc-coe.org/kualalumpur2004.html

Kuala Lumpur features: Although written according to the usual journalistic standards of accuracy and balance, since this article is intended for the general public it should not be read as a formal academic or theological text, nor should it be considered an official statement of the Faith and Order commission.

Opinions expressed in WCC Features do not necessarily reflect WCC policy. This material may be reprinted freely, providing credit is given to the author.