An African Jesus

Rhoda Woets

Kobina Bucknor, title unknown (1968). Photo: Rhoda Woets

Kobina Bucknor, title unknown (1968). Photo: Rhoda Woets

This painting might come across as an interpretation of what an African chief looks like. But it is not. What is it then? The painter depicted Jesus Christ here as part of a series of the Stations of the Cross. This work was painted in 1968 by the painter and biochemist Kobina Bucknor in acrylic polymers on masonite board for the Christ the King Church in central Accra, Ghana, where it is still on display. As one Irish priest explained to me when I visited this church in May 2011, Catholic worshippers kneel in front of this painting to pray. And every year on Good Friday, the congregation moves along all the stations painted by Bucknor to sing and pray together in commemoration of Christ’s crucifixion.

What immediately captures the eye is Jesus’ African appearance. He sits on an Akan [1]wooden stool which is reserved for noble people such as a chief or queen mother and wears an expensive hand-woven Kente cloth and royal sandals. The elongated neck is generally regarded as an Akan ideal of beauty. The figure is still well-recognisable as Jesus by his conventional gesture. The Africanisation of Christ’s features fitted in well with the amendments of the Second Vatican in 1965 that called for the appropriation of local cultural practices into the Catholic Church, a process often referred to as interculturation. The Akan symbols employed by Bucknor presents Akan objects and beauty ideals as part of a Ghanaian heritage, subscribing to political effort to formulate a national identity that transcended ethnic boundaries. 

Kobina Bucknor was born in 1925 and, apart from being an artist with no formal training, he worked as a PhD trained research scientist in biology. He referred to his working method as the Sculptural Idiom as he based his forms on the abstractionist vocabulary found in those carvings that had become masterpieces in the Primitivist art movement in Euro-America. The result was a modern visual language in a stylized, flat, two-dimensional realism in earthy colours. He often let figures flow together with their environment, which created a visual unity of, for example, musicians with their instruments, or a mother breastfeeding her baby. Here we see how the background forms a continuation of the cloth patterns. Bucknor claimed that modern life in Africa was not foreign to traditional African culture. He ranked Jesus, brought to Africa by missionaries, among “traditional” African priests by stating that their spiritual messages were similar (Fosu 1993: 120). He gave expression to this idea by painting Jesus and his disciples in browns, as we see here in his commissioned work for Christ the King Church in Accra.

In line with his artistic predecessors, Bucknor argued that an African identity needed to be further developed through a synthesis of “past and present.” The underlying evolutionist idea was that “traditional” forms served as the foundation for a modern and intellectually “advanced” Ghanaian art. After Ghana gained Independence in 1957, artists would come to argue that “tradition” should not limit them in their expression but serve as a stepping stone in shaping a modern identity in a society characterized by scientific progress. Just like the Cubists in Europe, modern artists in Ghana positioned African sculpture in an undefined, spiritual and “untainted” past. The recovery of a supposedly lost indigenous culture not only served to fight British domination or forge a national identity, but also aimed to reinvent Africa’s relation with the world, thus incorporating Ghana into global structures. The sculptures and paintings of contemporary painters and sculptors were also commissioned, bought and displayed by the Ghanaian government to show the world the country’s modern and advanced nature. The work of these artists showed the world that the new nation maintained a distinctive and unique cultural identity that was “rooted” in a rich pre-colonial past.

Further reading

Fosu, Kodjo (1993), 20th Century Art of Africa (revised edition). Kumasi: Design press, University of Science and Technology

—————-(2009), Pioneers of Contemporary Ghanaian Art Exhibition. Catalogue. Accra: Artists Alliance Gallery

Woets, Rhoda (2011), “What is this?” Framing Ghanaian art from the colonial encounter to the present. Unpublished PhD-thesis. Amsterdam: VU University


[1] With Akan I refer to linguistically and culturally related groups in Southern Ghana and part of the Ivory Coast.

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