The Bible inhabits and haunts the arts in Africa. From the icons of Egyptian Coptic Christianity to the rap music of the contemporary descendants of the Khoi and the San peoples of the southern tip of the continent, from the literary works of Chinua Achebe in the west of the continent to the literary works of Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o in the east, from the film industries of Ghana, Nigeria, and South Africa, the Bible is “re-membered.” While Mediterranean North Africa was a significant force in the production of “the Bible” and sub-Saharan Africa received the Bible as part of the missionary-colonial imperial project, Africans across the continent have transacted with the Bible in similar ways, making African contexts and African peoples the subject of biblical appropriations.

Colonialism’s project of self-definition through foreign domination was one of alienation: it constructed alien nations and transformed them into nations of aliens. What then does the image of an African holding a Bible, reading/interpreting the Bible, or listening to the Bible being read conjure and represent? Does it conjure the image of a colonized person? A local consumer of a strange, foreign product? A cross-cultural hermeneut? A colonial critic? Or perhaps all of the above (Wimbush, 2009, pp. 162–177)? Often these intricate and complex relations depicting the Bible’s place in Africa are most clearly evident not in African churches but in verbal and graphic arts in Africa.

Verbal Art Re-membering Proverbial Wisdom.

“When white people came to South Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. But now, we find that they have the land and we have the Bible” (cited in Walker, 1999, p. 16). Almost proverbial in its terseness and provocative claims, this statement partly turns on what it means to “have” the Bible but also, even more importantly, how it is that Africa and Africans have the Bible. Even with major changes in literacy as a function of missionary work in sub-Saharan Africa, the Bible continues to be encountered largely in oral form. That is, for millions of Africans, the Bible as spoken word rather than as written book plays a major role in Christian life, theological reflection, and social engagement. The reasons are multiple, including the aesthetics and value of the spoken word as a creative, powerful force in African culture and the importance of storytelling (not simply story) as a communal event, and therefore of the embodied (voice, body, attire) nature of verbal art.

A particular form of verbal art—proverbial speech—is part of the study of folklore (Okpewho, 1992), of litigation and legal processes (Yankah, 1986), of storytelling and literature (Achebe, 1994), of cultural critique and discourse (Yitah, 2009), of Bible translation and “African narrative theology” (Healey and Sybertz, 2002; Peterson, 2003), and of political mythology (Kunene, 1981; Niane, 1965). The pervasiveness of verbal art forms (e.g., proverbial speech, music, drama, debates) springing up like flowers in expected and unexpected places engages the Bible as a “resource,” fully cognizant of the Bible’s tortured political and religious history on the continent. Verbal art is thus “community art” informed by the aesthetics of wit, verbal contest, spontaneity, and even survival in distinct political and cultural spaces (Boadu, 1985). It probes some of the power struggle that accompanies the investment of authority in the technologies—graphic and/or verbal—of biblical interpretation.

William Bascom coined the phrase “verbal art” as part of his study of folktales, proverbs, myths, and tales as “forms of aesthetic expression.” When studied as “form for its own sake” beyond utilitarian purposes, verbal art “differs from normal speech in the same way that music differs from noise, that dancing differs from walking, or that an African stool differs from a block of wood” (Bascom, 1955, p. 246). In many ways, the Bible’s presence in Africa has been a major act of “verbal art,” sometimes violently produced. And so, African engagement with the Bible is proverbial. As part of verbal art, a proverb is “a saying in more or less fixed form marked by ‘shortness, sense, and salt’ and distinguished by the popular acceptance of the truth tersely expressed in it” (Finnegan, 1970, p. 393). Yet proverb performance requires more than knowledge of proverbs; it requires proper use in specific contexts. To that extent, Chinua Achebe’s classic description of proverbial speech in Things Fall Apart (1994) is worth referencing. The characters involved, Okoye and Unoka, have a good appreciation for drama and art, particularly music and proverbial speech. Of their conversation, Achebe writes:

"Having spoken plainly so far, Okoye said the next half dozen sentences in proverbs. Among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten. Okoye was a great talker and he spoke for a long time, skirting round the subject and then hitting it finally. In short, he was asking Unoka to return the two hundred cowries he had borrowed from him more than two years before. (p. 7)"

How might the perception of proverbial speech as “skirting around” fit into the sense of proverbs as precise and terse statements? And how does “skirting around” facilitate the art of conversation, especially conversation around difficult issues of power and stature? A particular kind of art form is performed here. Okoye’s “skirting round the subject” slows down narrative pace and creates what Herre van Oostendorp calls a situation model: “a situation model is not something static, but mental representation that is in constant flow, adapting itself dynamically to new, incoming information” (2001, p. 175). Proverbial speech as verbal art combines linguistic terseness with semantic elasticity, dramatically depicted by Okoye’s proverb-piling. By virtue of its totalizing brevity and elastic metaphors, proverbial art invites, perhaps even compels response. The Zulu saying is correct: “Debate/dialogue is the kernel of wisdom.” When performed, proverbial art is partly premised on audience participation; its aesthetics is a creative process that links production with reception so that speaker and audience become co-creators. By slowing down narrative pace through impressionistic, seemingly totalizing statements, the terseness of proverbial speech abbreviates narrative time-space while its generic concepts expand narrated time-space.

Responding to an invitation to participate at an African cultural festival, Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ performed a poem titled “African Revolutions,” which became the basis of further reflection in an essay titled, “Africa Is Not a Proverb” (2009, pp. 48–52). Ngũgĩ’s provocative essay argues, inter alia, for pan-Africanism that overcomes colonial identities and boundaries and advocates a cultural revolution that appreciates the complexities of continental and diasporic African lives. Keenly aware of this global audience, Ngũgĩ offered—in place of the proverbial proverb—a radical discourse (2009, p. 49; italics original), which, although tinged by “poetic affection,” probes urgent matters beyond entertainment: “African cultural celebrations have mistaken Africa for a proverb, they create an Africa in the image of the Westerner—of dances and drums, of an apolitical culture—in short they deculturalize culture. When did African culture become mere song and dance? The beating of a drum? Or the recital of riddles to eager white faces in Madison, Wisconsin?” In the end, “culture cannot be silent, it is not a drum and it is not a proverb” (Ngũgĩ, 2009, pp. 49–50).

It should be noted that the last words of Ngũgĩ’s initial poem are as follows: “For a tree to grow comrade, it must first own its earth.” Ironically, the proverbial art here simultaneously critiques colonial constructs of Africa as a stagnant culture and advocates—as part of the strategy for cultural revolution—the need to claim Africa’s singular space.

“The image,” writes Achille Mbembe, “is never an exact copy of reality. As a figure of speech, the image is always a conventional comment, the transcription of a reality, a word, a vision, or an idea into a visible code that becomes, in turn, a manner of speaking of the world and inhabiting it” (2001, p. 142). The Bible has been immersed in (post)colonial struggles in sub-Saharan Africa, as have been issues of gender, race, ethnicity, and nationality. Historically, the relationship between the Bible and African verbal art has been rugged. Not only were local art forms often subjected to ridicule by some missionary ideologues, verbal art was recognized and mocked. In his attempt to rationalize colonial ideology in sub-Saharan Africa as “strikingly existing proof of holy scriptures,” John Hanning Speke wrote:

"To say that a negro is incapable of instruction is a mere absurdity, for those few boys who have been educated in our schools have proved themselves even quicker than our own at learning; while, among themselves, the deepness of their cunning and their power of repartee are quite surprising, and are especially shown in their proficiency for telling lies most appropriately in preference to truth, and with an off-handed manner that makes them most amusing." (1864, p. xvii)

The embodied reaction of surprise at the colonized person’s “power of repartee” and the caricature of verbal art’s aesthetics of contrast as “lies” at worst and “amusing” at best has thankfully been corrected by scholarship that highlights the double entendre, even double-speak of verbal art in the (post)colony, demonstrating how proverbial verbal art may function to enforce and/or subvert existing structures and worldviews (Bergsma, 1970, pp. 151–163; Oduyoye, 1995, pp. 55–76).

The constructions and contestations of meaning in colonial and postcolonial contexts produced scenarios for understanding the relation of the Bible and verbal art:

"to publicly articulate knowledge meant, in part, in making everything speak—that is, in constantly transforming reality into a sign. … The great epistemological—and therefore social—break was not between what was seen and what was read, but between what was seen (the visible) and what was not seen (the occult), between what was heard, spoken and memorized and what was concealed (secret)." (Mbembe, 2001, p. 144; italics original)

The fluidity of the spoken word and the opportunity—through performance—to speak directly and contemporaneously to lived experiences heighten the importance of verbal art and its relevance to how Africans “have” the Bible as a text, as well as to the moral universe that the Bible occupies in the lives of Christians. Johanna Agthe recalls an epigraph that a Kenyan Christian artist, Elimo Njau, put in his workshop to communicate what he believed to be the creative gift of the artist in shaping the independence of the nation: “Do Not Copy. Copying Puts God to Sleep” (1994, pp. 375–376).

Similarly, Matthew Engelke notes the emphasis on the spoken word in an independent church in Chitungwiza, Zimbabwe. Engelke argues that the authority of the Bible as a written text is minimized, sometimes even rejected. Instead, “religious authority and the experience of the divine are created in moments of ritual speech,” a moment of interpretive, even “prophetic” performance in which adherents believe they receive the word of God “live and direct” from the spirit (2004, p. 77) and communicate it through the spoken word. Elsewhere, Piet Konings describes a similar oral epistemology behind revival movements in the Roman Catholic and Presbyterian churches in Cameroon in the second half of the twentieth century (2003, pp. 32–35). In all these cases, the Bible is proverbial: it represents generic concepts about humankind and divinity, but these generic concepts find relevance through specific forms of embodiment, verbal art, moments of “ritual speech” that engage the audience not just on issues of syntax and linguistic acumen, social and religious setting, but, more importantly, through a technology of communication that is readily available to the masses for appreciation and critique. Verbal art is critical to understanding how Africans “have” the Bible.

Here, Helen Yitah’s examination of proverbial use by Kasena women in northern Ghana proves instructive. Engaging in “role play,” women act out male discourse and use “proverbial jesting” to challenge its assumptions, thereby drawing “attention to values such as reciprocity, complementarity, and interdependence.” The result is “proverb revolt” that deconstructs essentialist representations of Africa as static and male: “women’s proverbial practice reveals a complex and dynamic society in which women’s counterdiscourse provides representations that reshape agency and redefine identity” (Yitah, 2009, pp. 75–77). In the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon (PCC), members of church groups (e.g., the Christian Women’s Fellowship, Christian Men’s Fellowship, Christian Youth Fellowship) often engage in Bible study, not just as a general practice, but more specifically in preparation for annual festivities that include friendly competitions with groups from other congregations. These competitions, organized around specific religious themes, include events such as singing and dancing, graphic art displays, and “memory verses”—recitations of biblical verses from memory—a performance that marks the culmination of months of preparation and practice. Although the competitive format adds entertainment value to these performances, engagement with biblical themes becomes a creative process of hermeneutics that finds its full articulation in verbal art. Verbal art is not just one way in which Africans engage and appropriate the Bible, it also adds texture to how the graphic arts engage the Bible.

Art Re-membering Writing.

Azaria Mbatha’s appropriation of the story of Joseph from the biblical book of Genesis (Gen 37–50) is an African appropriation. Mbatha locates the story in Africa, which is where most of the Joseph story as told in Genesis takes place (in Egypt), and he reads the story from and for his African context. The characters, themes, and concerns are African, with the symbols and ideas coming specifically from the Zulu tradition and culture (Mbatha, 1986, p. 6). In a typical postcolonial move, Mbatha both resists the missionary-colonial “message” of the Bible and claims the Bible as an African artifact. The Bible, for Mbatha, tells an African story. Mbatha’s reading remembers the precolonial past, a past that, he says, “we need to be reminded by and about” and that “we as Africans were compelled to forget” (p. 7).

Without mentioning the Bible’s role in the missionary-colonial imperial project, Mbatha goes on to be more explicit: “It was European civilization which brought the end of African civilization and replaced it with its own. I cannot find the words to describe what a terrible crime this is” (1986, p. 8). Remember the past we must, asserts Mbatha, who then goes on to “re-member” the Bible in order to remember the African past.

Mbatha’s retelling of the biblical story of Joseph is a “re-membering” (West, 1994, 1997). In the words of Jean and John Comaroff, “Creative figures [in postcolonial contexts, like Mbatha]—be they [artists,] poets, prophets, even witchfinders; whether they work with [images,] mirrors, medicines or the written word—are experimental practitioners. They try to make universal signs speak to particular realities,” and “their activities are in fact a means of producing historical consciousness: they seek to shape the inchoateness, the murky ambiguity of colonial encounters into techniques of empowerment and signs of collective representation” (Comaroff and Comaroff, 1993, p. xxii). This re-making or re-membering of universal signs in the specifically South African colonial matrix of missionary-colonial endeavor and the encroachments of modern capitalism has drawn readers like Mbatha “into a conversation with the culture of modern capitalism—only to find themselves enmeshed … in its order of signs and values.” And yet, “even as they are encompassed by the European capitalist system—consumed, ironically as they consume its goods and texts—they often seek to seize its symbols, to question their authority and integrity, and to reconstruct them in their own image” (Comaroff and Comaroff, 1991, p. xii).

African Art

The Joseph Story (1964–1965) by Azaria Mbatha. Linocut on paper. Mbatha’s illustration of the story of Joseph from Genesis (37–50) is an African appropriation.

Image courtesy Gerald West

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Mbatha’s linocut, both in its form and in its images, might be interpreted as being engaged in such resisting conversation. The linocut, an African form, seizes and remakes the left-to-right and top-to-bottom conventions of colonial text to tell an African story of struggle from a European-brought book, like the Bible. In so doing, Mbatha, and others like him, “escape the dominant order without leaving it” (Comaroff and Comaroff, 1991, p. xii). Contesting European domination, Mbatha becomes implicated in it, for by “exhibiting” his linocut in the public realm, Mbatha contends within the dominant discourse. Missionary-colonial “biblical” discourse is, Mbatha recognizes, “a plastic idiom or dialect that is capable of carrying an enormous variety of meanings, including those that are subversive of their use as intended by the dominant” (Scott, 1990, pp. 102–103).

Mbatha’s linocut portrays the perspective of Africa in its concern for community and in its concentration on human pain (and joy). Every panel of the linocut is filled with characters, and in all but the last each panel is full of pain. This is not a story of an individual but the story of a clan, of a community. It is a story of ubuntu, the isiZulu term that signifies that a person is a person because of other people. But it is also a story of the betrayal of ubuntu, and so of powerlessness and isolation (Mbatha, 1986, pp. 7, 9).

The damage done to ubuntu is recognized in each but the last panel. Reading from left to right and from top to bottom, though not the only way “to read” this linocut, one discerns communal pain at the heart of each panel. In panel 1 the pain is that of the confusion of parents and older brothers at their son and younger brother, respectively, interpreting dreams that appear to indicate that he will rule over them, disrespecting his elders. In panels 2 and 4 a human being is being exchanged for money; the human being is an object to be bought and sold. These two panels depict the two times Joseph is sold: to slave traders by his brothers and by the slave traders to an Egyptian officer of the pharaoh. Here the pain is Joseph’s and the African “reader’s.” The pain in panel 3 is that of deception, as the brothers offer their father and one of their mothers (perhaps, Rachel) Joseph’s blood-stained coat, inviting them to believe that he has been devoured, not by his own brothers, but by a wild animal. In panel 5, the central panel, on another “reading,” there is more deception, as once again Joseph’s clothing is used to tell a lie. Potiphar’s wife frames Joseph, her slave, because he refused to have sex with her. Here Joseph’s pain is the pain of being a victim of deceit, and Potiphar’s pain is the pain of imagined betrayal. Panel 6 echoes panel 1, as once again the interpretation of dreams raises Joseph above others, the Egyptian seers of the pharaoh.

If colonialism has schooled Mbatha about slavery, the complicity of local elites in the management of apartheid has prepared him for Joseph’s co-option by the Egyptian court, for in panels 7 and 8 it is Joseph who betrays ubuntu. In panel 7 Joseph, who is now an important and powerful official in Egypt, uses his position to conceal his identity from his brothers to force them to leave Simeon behind as a hostage and practically compel their return to Egypt with Benjamin. And as panel 8 indicates, Jacob is forced to send Benjamin as a ransom for Simeon and in exchange for food. Mbatha recognizes and remembers the suffering of those who are manipulated and exploited by the powerful. Mbatha exposes the powerful, those “who live in this world at the expense of the weak” (1986, p. 5). Though the joy of family reunion in panel 9 is the final “word,” the residual pain of panel 1 mixes with the tears of joy as Joseph rules over his family in a foreign (African?) land.

The pervasiveness of forms of betrayal in Mbatha’s linocut resides in his recognition that the oppression of the weak is perpetrated and perpetuated not only by those outside the community (panels 4 and 5), but also by members of the community (panels 1, 2, 3, 7, and 8). This is genuinely terrible: the recognition that the ability and will to dominate and destroy lies among us in the family and community (Mbatha, 1986, p. 10). Ubuntu is broken, families are separated and communities moved, not only by forces without but also by forces within. This is a properly postcolonial recognition.

By foregrounding the youngest sons, Joseph and Benjamin, in his interpretation, Mbatha recovers the story’s emphasis on community continuity: “When a child is born the chain of ancestors grows by another link” (1986, p. 21), hence the devastation experienced by Jacob and Rachel in panels 1, 3, and 8. Not only is the continuity of community directly threatened by the death of a young (favorite) male, but a connecting link with the amadlozi (ancestors) is also lost (p. 41) because the amadlozi often speak through young children in dreams and visions (as in panel 1). Furthermore, a child who dies lacks the wisdom and experience of the community to become a significant ancestor who will guarantee continuity between the past and the future (p. 25).

Like Jacob’s family, the African family clan is affected by both the living and the dead. The amadlozi (the living dead) watch over and guide the family clan. But malign forces are also at work, activated by “witchcraft.” In African contexts “material transactions are inseparable from a moral traffic in human and superhuman powers”; indeed, while the seeds of African witchcraft precede colonization, “soul-eating [or bewitching—ukuthakatha—in Zulu culture] is thought to be driven by an appetite for money, a hunger unleashed, as local [African] commentators stress, by European colonialism” (Comaroff and Comaroff, 1993, p. xiv). Mbatha’s emphasis on dreams and their ambiguous effects in panels 1 and 4 (panels that draw the eye of the viewer-reader) locate this story within the realm of contestation within the “spirit” realm (Mbatha, 2005, pp. 31–33). How else, the traditional Mbatha might be wondering, can one of the youngest in the family clan sit (in the final panel, panel 9) above his father? For surely this seating arrangement flouts the deferential system of hlonipha (respect), so central to Zulu traditional culture? Or, perhaps, for the Christian Mbatha, “this kind of tradition does not hold sway” (2005, p. 355)? For Mbatha the African Christian, the story of Joseph is partially his own art.

Mbatha is not unaware that his contestation of domination is already implicated in it. In panel 6, Mbatha, like the pharaoh, clothes Joseph in the clothing of the colonial power. In taking on a colonial form, Joseph, like Mbatha, becomes implicated in colonial practice. Mbatha’s reading is especially sensitive to the clothing imagery in the story. Joseph’s beautiful cloak separates him from his brothers and is a symbol of his father’s favoritism in panel 1. But his cloak is also a symbol of conflict in the family, because it is stripped from him when he is assaulted and sold by his brothers (panel 2). The cloak, which the brothers have smeared with blood, is then used to deceive their father and mother (panel 3). As in panel 2, so in panel 4 Joseph’s vulnerability and powerlessness is portrayed again by the absence of clothing. In both panels he is unclothed and naked, an object with no human dignity. Between the events of panels 4 and 5 Joseph has obviously been clothed by Potiphar, signifying his new position and power, because in panel 5 Potiphar’s wife holds Joseph’s garment in her hand as an accusation against him. Once again clothing is used to deceive (and to confer a form of identity). But in panels 6, 7, and 9 Joseph is clothed once again, this time with the clothes of Egyptian favor and power.

The irregular boxes (panels 4/7 and 6/9) in which Mbatha frames these episodes of the story are a sign, perhaps, of a subtle deconstruction of the dominant form that encompasses his resisting reading and may even offer other ways of reading the linocut. Similarly, the prominence given to the female figure in panels 1, 3, 5, and 6, reminds the African re-memberer of the biblical story that although the story appears to be about a father and his sons, the movement of the plot is really determined by the respective relationships between the wives—Leah (indlovukazi “first wife”), Rachel (inthandokazi “favorite/loved wife”), and Bilhah and Zilpah (isancinza “helper to the wife”)—and their husband (Jacob) and between these mothers and their respective sons. And the central panel, panel 5, reminds African readers of how colonial and apartheid madams might use their economic and racial power to sexually exploit the young African males who are servants in their homes and gardens.

Mbatha offers a range of points of access and interpretation in this linocut. While attentive to the detail of the text with respect to family clan matters, Mbatha only hints at the larger political role that Joseph takes up after he has settled his family in Egypt (Gen 47:13). Following the emphasis of the biblical story itself, Mbatha re-members the effects of geopolitical forces on the family clan.

Music Re-membering Death.

Just as Jacob (Gen 50:5) and Joseph (Gen 50:25) yearn to be “properly” buried in their ancestral land, so, too, “proper” burial is a feature of African communities. When the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission heard the testimonies of families who had “lost” family members to the apartheid regime’s reign of terror, the constant refrain was finding the bodies of those who had disappeared during apartheid and proper burial. Funerals became sites of sociopolitical contestation, one of the few “black” sites not substantially controlled by the apartheid state’s security forces. And though Job 1:21, “The LORD gives, the LORD takes away; blessed be the name of the LORD,” forms a part of most funeral liturgies, this acceptance of death was framed by the singing of the resisting lament “Senzeni na? ”

Since the 1950s the haunting sounds of this lament have been heard in South Africa, at funerals, mostly, but also in political marches and in church.

Senzeni na? [What have we done?]Sono sethu, ubumyama? [Our sin is that we are black?]Sono sethu yinyaniso? [Our sin is the truth?]Sibulawayo! [They are killing us!]Mayibuye iAfrica! [Let Africa return!]

In the 1980s this song could be heard almost daily, and definitely on Saturdays when communities gathered to bury those murdered by the apartheid regime and their surrogates. A decade and a half after liberation, the song is still sung. The terrain of struggle has shifted from political liberation to economic liberation and the related struggle for deliverance from HIV and AIDS. Funerals are still the primary social location of this song: “Senzeni na?

Across the African continent, untimely death (unlike the deaths of Jacob and Joseph) draws from contending biblical trajectories as communities struggle to make theological sense of this too common phenomenon. There is the recognition that somehow God is involved, for “The LORD gives, the LORD takes away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” And yet, there is protest, “Senzeni na?,” drawing on the poetry of Job and the Psalms (West, 2008). And while this contestation is seldom overtly dealt with in African churches, African poets and artists are less restrained:

"Friday Mavuso, special tribute to the late President of the DPSA—the Disabled People of South Africa—died June 1995, car accident."

When he died I wished I could stage a sit-in in heaven. / Magundulela ngubani oyohaya inkondlo ngawe? [Magundulela, who will compose a poem about you?] / Yini eyakungenza ngikuhloniphe ukufa na? [Why should I respect death?] / Lord my God I do not understand. / Pardon me, I am ignorant. / Here I stand in search of thy wisdom. / Is death an idiom, or is death an idiot? / Lord my God, I do not understand.

When are you on duty, and when are you on leave? / Is there a holiday in heaven or not? / Few years ago tragedy deprived us of two great talents. / In one week you took away Arthur—‘Fighting Prince’—Mayisela and Paul Ndlovu the singer. / Again, death deprived us of two great talents, legends, Friday Mavuso and Harry Gwala, both paralysed.

Lord my God, I do not understand. / Punish me not, for I am ignorant. / Is there a new commandment? / “Thou shall suffer perpetually” / “Thou shall die more than other races”? / Now I understand why other nations weep when the child is born.

Lord my God, do you care about the poor? / Why then remove the shepherd from the sheep? / Is there a hidden prophecy about the plight of the black people? / Is there a curse bestowed upon us? / Senzeni thina sizwe esimnyama? [What have we black people done?] / Was the bullet that riddled Friday’s spinal cord not enough? / Why did you remove Friday Mavuso and leave Barend Strydom alone? / I repeat, why did you remove Friday Mavuso and leave Barend Strydom alone?

Lord my God, I cannot fax nor telephone you, but to continue with my provocative poetry … / Why are there so many more funerals than weddings? / Do you know that our graves are overcrowded? / Is death an idiom, or death an idiot?

Lord my God, why allow people with unfinished projects to enter your kingdom? / When Friday Mavuso finally enters thy kingdom, honour him with a noble crown. / When he enters thy kingdom, ask him who should look after his sheep. / When he enters thy kingdom, ask him what should we do with his wheelchair. / When he enters thy kingdom, tell him I say his departure was too early and too soon for heaven, too soon for burial.

(Mbuli, 1996)

Mzwakhe Mbuli is known in South Africa as “the people’s poet,” for his songs and poetry have long articulated the inchoate embodied experiences of millions of black South Africans struggling for liberation. Now in the context of HIV and AIDS, this song continues that prophetic tradition in South African society, demonstrating that it is legitimate to talk back to power, including God. The immediate context of this song is the untimely deaths of many black activists (Friday Mavuso, Arthur Mayisela, Paul Ndlovu, Harry Gwala) and the amnesty granted to Barend Strydom, a white racist murderer, by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The wider context, as other tracks on the music album indicate, is the HIV and AIDS pandemic. The lines that ask, “Why are there so many more funerals than weddings? / Do you know that our graves are overcrowded?” is a direct allusion to this reality of African lives. Africans attend funerals every weekend, but hardly ever a wedding. Economic issues and associated issues of crime and violence also lurk in the background, including the devastation of global neoliberal capitalism and African neocolonial governments’ macroeconomic buy-in to capitalism and its effects on African contexts, including systemic poverty, unemployment, and inequality. But HIV and AIDS are at the forefront, and this song is a lament about specifically named untimely deaths and untimely deaths in general.

The rhetoric is that of the title character in the book of Job. There is a relentless, respectful/disrespectful, questioning of God. Mbuli’s lament is resisting discourse, as the many allusions to “struggle” tactics so familiar to millions of South Africa remind us. Mbuli wonders if struggle tactics like sit-ins would work in heaven! He acknowledges his ignorance, showing deference (hlonipha) to the divine, but goes on to ask whether an eleventh commandment has been added to the list he knows so well. He worries that God is racist, punishing blacks disproportionately. Like Job, he longs for more immediate contact with God. And he ends by giving God instructions about how to behave in God’s own context, heaven. Surely, Mbuli seems to be saying, if God cannot intervene more justly in our context, God must be able to act justly in God’s context!

Throughout, the interrogative mood is used. Here, unfortunately, unlike in the book of Job (but as in Psalm 44), God does not appear and does not answer. The liturgical acceptance of untimely death is contested, and the lamenting questioning of God has been affirmed and given legitimacy both by re-membering other biblical trajectories (the poetry of Job and the Psalms) and by Mbuli (as a political-cultural popular icon who takes up this mode of discourse). Untimely, “too soon,” death is re-membered.

Art Re-membering AIDS.

Just as an overt recognition of and engagement with the Bible as a site struggle of contending trajectories (Brueggemann, 1993) or theological “layers” (Mosala, 1989) is seldom done within or by African churches, so dealing directly with sex and sexuality is taboo within African churches. Fortunately, African artists of all kinds are less constrained.

Phila Trevor Makhoba (1956–2003) used his art to engage a host of contextual issues confronting Africa. In almost all of his work, Makhoba takes up the social location of social commentator and religious prophet. In his images, Makhoba generally “broaches tradition within the context of current realities in response to crises, both personal and national, upholding communal ideals, a return to the values of the past and the mores of Christianity as a counter to such problems” (Leeb-du Toit, 2003, p. 230). Makhoba’s Zulu heritage and Christian beliefs provide him with the moral framework from within which he takes on the role of evangelical Christian and African cultural commentator (Leigh, 2002, pp. 125–147).

Makhoba deals directly with sex, both the ways in which those with power (like white madams and black male schoolteachers) demand sexual “favors” of those “under” their power and the ways in which passionate “love” might lead to unprotected sex and then HIV infection. In his oil-and-board painting They were deeply in love (2002), sex is clearly dangerous, as two skeletons engage in sexual intercourse on top of a grave in a cemetery at night, with the red AIDS ribbon on the tombstone behind them. The tone of this picture is ironic, as Makhoba encompasses these skeletons with the fire of passionate love and two turtledoves kissing at the foot of the grave. Similarly, in his oil-and-board painting a year later, Don’t fall in love at night (2003), a male skeleton is raping/having intercourse from the rear with a frightened looking/ecstatic healthy young woman, on a grave at night, with the woman clutching the tombstone with its red AIDS ribbon. The tone here is more ominous, with the male skeleton engulfed by fire and lost in rapture and the healthy naked woman in her high-heeled shoes looking more terrified than enraptured.

While the Bible is not specifically invoked in these paintings, a theology of retribution hovers over many of Makhoba’s HIV-related works. Indeed, the predominant view in most African Christian communities is that HIV is a punishment from God (Chitando, 2007, p. 21). That HIV is transmitted mainly by sexual intercourse only confirms this opinion in the minds of many, including perhaps Makhoba. Such a view receives support also from African Traditional Religion (Lwendo, 2000), within which HIV and AIDS are represented as a punishment from or the discipline of God and/or the ancestors or as the work of “witchcraft” (Ashforth, 2005, pp. 9–10, 18, 89, 108; Balcomb, 2006). Clearly there are theological alliances across Christianity and African Traditional Religion with respect to HIV and AIDS.

But Makhoba appears reluctant to probe “the Bible’s” perspective on HIV directly. The closest he comes is in a linocut, “GOD WANTS HIS PEOPLE,” the first of Makhoba’s works re-membering HIV. That this work of Makhoba’s, produced as part of the “HIV-AIDS Billboard & Print Portfolio: Artists for Human Rights” exhibition in 2000/01 and his first explicit comment on HIV and AIDS, is to be read theologically is clear; what is less clear is how this work is to be interpreted theologically (West, 2010). The words included in the frame, “IT GIVES SUFFICEINT TIME FOR REPENTANCE”—the upper case and spelling are Makhoba’s—are clearly theological, and their message seems self-evident. The words handwritten below the frame, “GOD WANTS HIS PEOPLE,” are also theological, though less obvious in their theological thrust.

At first glance the work presents the prevailing theological position on HIV and AIDS in Africa, which is that this disease is a punishment from God and/or the ancestors. The mouth of some great beast is waiting (or perhaps advancing) to devour those who do not repent with its twin gaping jaws: HIV (the upper jaw) and AIDS (the lower jaw). Tombstone-like and coffin-like teeth are poised to crush. Yet Makhoba’s theology provides some hope: there is time, he proclaims in the frame, for repentance. The jaws have not yet closed, they remain open. The “it” he refers to in “IT GIVES SUFFICEINT TIME” is unclear but probably refers to this beast, whose millennial nostrils provide an overt date. The darkness, he seems to be saying, of the new millennium and its heraldic disease is almost upon us, but there is still time to repent. The horror of the punishment that awaits those who refuse God’s call is vividly portrayed. But Makhoba the African Christian prophet’s voice/text is equally clear: “God wants his people,” and there is therefore sufficient time to repent.

This work of Makhoba’s fits the disciplinary parameters of the deuteronomistic theology of retribution (which pervades the books of Deuteronomy, Judges, Samuel, and Kings): the people of God have forsaken their God, so God has given them over to the consequences of their sinfulness, but when they cry out to God and/or the ancestors (as Makhoba’s images do), God hears, raises up a prophetic leader, and restores the people (Jobling, 1995, 1998). Here, then, Makhoba aligns himself with a long line of biblical prophets who read “the signs of the times” and speak accordingly to the people of God. “GOD WANTS HIS PEOPLE,” Makhoba proclaims, along with Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, John the Baptist, and the many others Makhoba has encountered in his well-used Bible. The implication of this prophetic call is that God’s people have gone astray, that they must repent and return to God and be saved, but that if they do not, God will punish them.

Though a theology of retribution is a dominant theology, across the forms of African Christianity most familiar to Makhoba, whether Anglican, Zionist, or Charismatic, there are, Mzwahke Mbuli has reminded us, other more marginal biblical theological trajectories that interrupt the dominant theology of retribution, and there are signs of these in this work of Makhoba. The clearest clue to the presence of other theological voices is the identity of Makhoba’s beast. It seems that this beast most closely resembles the hippopotamus, though it may also exhibit some of the features of the crocodile. Crocodiles feature in at least one other of Makhoba’s works, “African Beat” (1991). In this work, “the crocodiles stand for obstacles the people experience in finding jobs” (Leigh, 2002, p. 132). Here, in “GOD WANTS HIS PEOPLE,” the beast is a more ultimate, terminal obstacle, and the blurring of the characteristics of the crocodile and hippopotamus signals something more sinister and theologically (biblically) significant.

These beasts, the crocodile and the hippopotamus, share significant features. They are both beasts that lurk beneath the surface of water and life, seemingly still and uninterested in human activity, and yet they can be roused with ferocious force and devastating effects. While the real beasts reside in rural communities, they are present in other forms in urban township life, or so Makhoba seems to be saying.

Makhoba’s beast is also found in the Bible, in the book of Job. For it is in this book that we encounter Behemoth, translated as imvubu (hippopotamus) in the old 1893 isiZulu translation of the Bible and the 1975 isiXhosa translations of Job 40:15–24, and Leviathan translated as ingwenya (crocodile) in the 1975 isiXhosa translation of Job 41:1–34. In these concluding chapters of the poetry of the book of Job we come to two strange and wonderful beasts, beasts over which human beings clearly have no control (which is God’s point in these chapters), but over which even God does not have complete control (which is perhaps the poet’s point in these chapters). Might part of Makhoba’s theology be found here, with Behemoth (the hippopotamus) and Leviathan (the crocodile) in the book of Job? “Look at Behemoth,” says God, “It is the first of the great acts of God—only its Maker can approach it with the sword” (Job 40:15, 19; NRSV). As for Leviathan, says God,

were not even the gods overwhelmed at the sight of it?No one is so fierce as to dare to stir it up.Who can stand before it?Who can confront it and be safe?—under the whole heaven, who?

(Job 41:9B–11)

The book of Job is an excellent example of an intense debate about the theology of retribution and may form part of Makhoba’s biblical reflections. In the prose prologue we enter a world in which the theology of retribution is taken seriously. Job, we are told, was not only himself “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (1:1), but he would also “send and sanctify” his sons and daughters after they had feasted, rising “early in the morning and offering burnt offerings according to the number of them all; for Job said, ‘It may be that my children have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts’ ” (1:5). Job’s health and wealth, and the health and wealth of his sons and daughters, it is implied, are directly related to his righteous life. The theology of retribution holds, apparently.

The story then becomes complicated, particularly for the reader, who is privy to the heavenly debate between God and his colleague, the satan (Job 1:6–12). Job, however, is unaware of the heavenly wager (though its victim), and so is forced to live in a world which, from his perspective, no longer conforms to the principle of retribution. Job has lived righteously—all agree (God, the narrator, the satan, Job’s wife, and Job himself)—but is punished rather than rewarded. At first Job doggedly accepts his fate, refusing to question God’s control—so much so that he can say, having experienced the loss of his livestock and servants, the destruction of his property and the death of all of his children, and his own deteriorating health, after all this, he can say, “the LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (1:21). Even the theologically astute call of his wife to put an end to his suffering by questioning God’s alleged order—“Do you still persist in your integrity [i.e., your theology]? Curse God, and die” (2:9)—is met with an affirmation of God’s control from her husband: “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” (2:10).

Job, it would appear, accepts “the bad” from God, remaining silent, refusing to “sin with his lips” (2:10) by questioning God or this theology. As he silently sits, his friends come among him, to “console and comfort him” (2:11). And we know what they will say; they will each explain to him how he must have sinned, in some sense, for how else can he (or, more importantly, they) explain his suffering. By looking at the destroyed and diseased Job they can tell that God must be punishing him in some way for something he has done—this is how their theology works.

But before they can say anything, and to their credit they do not immediately “counsel” Job, Job speaks. At last he takes his wife’s advice! Perhaps the death and destruction around him and within him had numbed him; one hopes so. Now, however, the radical challenge of his wife has registered in his numbed mind; the marvelous ambiguity of the Masoretic Hebrew text’s “Bless/curse God and die” has its theological effect. If being righteous and blessing God brings about such havoc, what damage can cursing God do? Having earlier refused to “sin with his lips,” he now re-members God differently. Perhaps reluctant to follow his wife’s theological proposition the whole way, Job initially curses God indirectly rather than directly, cursing “the day of his birth” (3:1). Prose is no longer adequate for what Job is about to say, and so the text shifts into poetry. This shift is more than a shift from prose to poetry, however; it is also a shift in theology.

Here is the beginning of another theology; here is a cry of rage and pain; here is an incipient and inchoate theology. Here is an attempt to undo what God did in Genesis 1! God says, “Let there be light” (Gen 1:3); Job counters with, “Let the day be darkness!” (3:4). Here Job struggles with how to speak of God—how to do theology—in the context of immense suffering and loss.

And so does Makhoba; he, too, struggles with how to speak of God in the context of HIV and AIDS; and so he carves this linocut, forsaking his more familiar medium of oil paint on canvas. Cutting is more suitable for his purposes, as he forms a beast, like Behemoth and Leviathan, that poses the profound theological question of whether God is fully in control. Makhoba, with millions of African Christians, hopes God is in control but worries when considering African realities.


African realities summon the sacred texts of Africa, including the Bible, to speak. Not as constrained as African churches, the arts in Africa are sites in which African peoples and African contexts contend for the significance of the Bible, recognizing that it, too, is a contested terrain. Therein resides the power of art, namely, in its ability to highlight and render generic concepts about human experience in an easily personifiable manner, its ability to translate generic concepts about human potential and lived experiences into actionable data, to give such concepts immediate currency and relevance, so that the concepts can be embodied with definitive consequences. Arts are, in that sense, bold, dogmatic, and engaging, often demanding unequivocal responses from their audience but at the same time acting more like catalysts that spur the audience into (sometimes) different actions, unlike anesthesia that numbs the audience into a single position or mindset (cf. Prov 26:4).


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Gerald O. West and Kenneth N. Ngwa