The poster for the art exhibit shows a young black man, dressed in a black suit with dreadlocks, slouched in a chair, surrounded by angry images. He has a defiant look on his face. I rarely miss a showcase exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). In fact, I probably never skip such an event at this venue. But, really, which angry kid deserves a grand solo exhibit in Toronto, at one of the top venues in North America? I asked myself.
I decided to skip the exhibit.
Shame on me. I doubted the integrity of AGO curators. And I now realize I subconsciously questioned the credibility of the Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibit for racist reasons. (Luckily, in spite of myself, I stumbled into the show earlier this month. God’s providence, I’d say.)
During his brief artistic career in the early 1980s, Basquiat’s work drew international attention, solo exhibits and collaborations with art giants such as Andy Warhol. He died at age 27 in 1988 after a struggle with drug addiction. His work lives on (basquiatnow.com).
Some 30 years ago now, Basquiat said he wanted to draw images of black men because nobody else did. (He noticed few images of blacks at the museums he visited as a child in New York.) His work continues to be ground breaking. His drawings, paintings and collages show powerful, proud, almost explosive, images of blacks.
Curators gave the Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibit a name: Now’s the Time. The title was taken from the famous speech by Martin Luther King in 1963. Most of us remember this keynote address as the I Have a Dream speech.
All God’s children
Maybe it is relatively easy to daydream about sweet images of kids – Black, Brown, White and Red – playing in the park and praying together at Sunday school. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character,” Doctor King told over 250,000 civil rights supporters at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
However, King’s legendary speech wasn’t about daydreaming. It was a radical call for action. “Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy. . . . Now is the time to make justice a reality for all God’s children.” For example, he specifically called for an end to police brutality. “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.”
In the past few months, Americans and the world have been shocked by multiple news events about police killings in everyday American neighbourhoods. It makes many of us wonder if much has changed since King’s call for action in 1963.
Here in Canada, we can feel a bit smug about these matters. After all, we have gun control. We take pride in being a society of immigrants. But, we also know that justice isn’t a reality for all God’s children in Canada. In Toronto, 41 percent of the children and youth in the care of the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto are black, yet only 8.2 percent of Toronto’s population under the age of 18 is black. In Manitoba, aboriginal children make up almost 90 percent of around 10,000 children in the care of the province’s Child and Family Services. These communities face complex challenges.
How can Christians respond?
This winter, I was privileged to attend JUST Faith, a candid one-act play that brings to life a recent research project. The initiative looks at ways CRC members in Canada “understand and pursue justice in relation to their spiritual lives.” The issues are complex. The challenges can be overwhelming. What can we possibly do as individuals or fledgling church communities?
After the play, the audience split into groups to discuss our responses. Participants suggested churches can intentionally make justice part of their church’s vision. They said we can do better when it comes to staying informed. Try to listen to those who experience injustices, they proposed. Others said we need to start with action: get involved in groups such as Out of the Cold or write advocacy letters to politicians.
In short, now is the time to pray for God’s strength to stay focused on faith as a source of hope and motivation to do justice.
Now is the time to pray for a personal commitment to remain well informed about justice issues.
Is this the time to seek God’s guidance in discovering the small steps we can take as individuals and churches to bring justice to all God’s children in Canada?
Meantime, on a smaller note, I was deeply moved by Jean-Michel Basquiat’s art. Go figure!