Arts Across Culture. A Response.

Arts Across Cultures: Reimagining the Christian Faith in Asia

Edited by Warren R. Beattie and Anne M. Y. Soh

I’m grateful for the opportunity to present a short response to the book, Arts Across Culture. The book presents both theological explorations and practical discussions with real-world cases—a combination that I found to be stimulating as a way of envisioning how theological concepts are implemented in practice and training through workshops. Rather than a summary, I will present brief reflections on a few themes. These may be considered ‘issues of arts in mission’ that emerge from reading the book—thus, they are not necessarily engagement with the book, but in a sense, teasing out further conversations regarding missions and intercultural encounters. In addition, you may think of my reflections as coming from someone thinking from a hyper-local positionality, as a Tribal-Indigenous scholar, especially given the book’s emphasis on the local vis-à-vis the global.

Let me start with issues surrounding knowledge production. Hennie Chiu, in her chapter, observes that for the Wa communities in SW China, art is functional—it serves a purpose in that lived experience within that place. Speaking from my own context of highland Naga communities of NE India, I would add that art and local expressions are modes of knowledge production—beyond the aesthetic value, art has pedagogical, religious, and epistemological roles. In other words, the questions of ‘who makes art’ and ‘who affirms these artworks as acceptable’ have enormous significance. Thus, I want to draw attention to the immense responsibility of ‘missional artists’ who are being challenged in this book to develop/facilitate art in local settings. The roles of knowledge production are squarely placed on ‘missional artists’, who are in most cases, essentially non-locals but are commissioned to perform the task of becoming local to facilitate and transform local artistic expressions. This sets off some alarm bells in my mind. In my own context, scholars on Naga communities in NE India have extensively written about the violence on artistic expressions inflicted by (i) mission strategies of discontinuing pre-Christian practices and also, (ii) contextual strategies of uncritically appropriating cultural practices. What is not highlighted in such encounters is the ensuing violence on their epistemologies and pedagogical systems. In addition, along with any new knowledge production, there is also knowledge diminution. Even something as simple as introducing the art of painting in the remote highlands (as Chiu writes) necessarily will involve the intrusion of a more marketable and trendier mode of artistic expression. While this may well positively open new ways of seeing, articulating, and knowing God (self-discovery, revelation, discipleship)—but it can’t be denied that from the brushes used, paint, easel, canvas, to the skills, methods, etc. they are all sourced from beyond the locale—thus, taking away agency from local skills, resources, and local knowledge.

Related to this, I think, is the need to be attentive to art in their various ‘non-conventional’ forms. This is exemplified in the discussion on faith and arts in Central Asia by Julie Taylor. Uzbek Christians engage in new ‘meaning-making’ on Rishtan and Pakhta designs in pottery—an undertaking that the locals themselves initiate. The responsibility of meaning-making and knowledge production is a highly political and contentious one; especially since many of these local expressions are vulnerable and locals often feel victimised by the onslaught of the forces of globalisation and missions. In such situations, missional artists may need to be perceptive to see beyond and to recognise artistic expressions as they are manifested in different cultures, rather than impose their own notions of ‘art’. In the Naga context, artistic expressions may appear in the forms of hand-woven shawl, oral cultures, community dances, satire and jokes, food, etc.

Missional artists must be also sensitive to issues of power—something that future projects could build on. For instance, we know that in mass media, for art to go viral or to trend, “content” has to do with more than a good story/artistry—it depends largely also on money, influence/rs, clout, and so on. Thus today, when art has been co-opted and perceived as the tools of advertisements in the proverbial ‘marketplace’, the conversation regarding power, influence, and arts in missions merits further discussion.

All of these are of course, with the assumption that we value the local and fear its loss and submersion in the global—and the book makes an excellent case in championing local arts. At the heart of these brief reflections is the question of the role of missional artists and local communities in knowledge production and meaning making. While the focus on local is crucial, I wonder if it would be equally vital to acknowledge and even celebrate the ‘otherness’ and trans-locality of missional artists/missionaries. After all, I would think that the best of artists contributes by pushing beyond the local, with their creativity and originality, by introducing an ‘other’ in the midst of the community—a new way of seeing and being. Embracing similar roles, I think missionaries and missional artists are well placed to introduce something that is beyond the local—the trans-local and the transcendent, into a local community. But conversely, this also involves acknowledging local communities not only as passive recipients of training, discipleship, advocacy, and support—but by working with them as co-facilitators, resource persons. In that dynamic, just at John Mbiti challenges, we can finally begin to have reciprocity.

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