“Can you tell me what this means?”
We heard that question often and unashamedly in our new art gallery in South Asia.
When visitors enter Gallery Edit, the art gallery housed in our US office in downtown Richmond, they walk through fairly quickly, circling the room, letting their eyes trail over each piece and perhaps pausing on one or two that stand out from the rest. This isn’t necessarily a bad way to look at art, often it feels like the only way to look at art in a city with dozens of galleries on a night where you may be trying to visit five or even ten of them. Unfortunately, this way of looking at art doesn’t leave much room for conversation and we do our best to reach out to people for those brief moments when they’re in the gallery.
The city where we were in South Asia, however, had four million people and two art galleries. Our gallery was the first many had ever entered in their lives and was the only one not intended for the elite. As friends and neighbors of the long-term team looked at paintings, drawings, and photographs in a gallery for the first time, they stopped and studied each piece. Murmuring to one another, they admired certain aspects and wondered at others. Most of our visitors, at some point, walked up to a short or long-term team member and asked the inevitable question, “Can you tell me what this means?”
“Well,” we were able to answer immediately, “the artist made this piece because they love God and they believe that God defines who they are, they believe that God is the most important part of their identity.”
There it was, thirty seconds into meeting a Hindu or a Buddhist or a Muslim, the chance to talk about Jesus.
This wasn’t a one-time, miraculous interaction. This was the kind of conversation we had countless times in South Asia, in the Middle East, in North Africa as people came to see art made by Christians and our team members were able to talk to them about how the artists’ faith informed their work.
It can be awkward and difficult to bring up Jesus in conversation in a majority Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist country. However, everything changes when you are standing with a new acquaintance in front of a piece of art. In those moments, you can talk about the art before you, imbued with its own meaning by a foreign artist in a far off country, rather than trying to immediately challenge deeply personal views or long-held beliefs. Suddenly the pressure is off, the conversation is completely natural, and there’s no forced introduction of faith as a talking point.
In South Asia, our art gallery is still going strong after two years and now a dance school operates out of the same space. People are coming to visit and talk with Christians because they want to see art or because they want their children to learn to dance. People are talking about God and faith and Jesus Christ because an artist made a painting and some team members were willing to explain the image. New disciples are meeting with our team to study the bible because they met us in the gallery on those first opening nights.
Art as mission is not letting our art speak for itself, although we believe that powerful messages can be communicated through skillfully crafted imagery. No, art as mission is using complex, beautiful, well made art to create a point of connection with the community and engage local people in meaningful relationships.
Beautiful things are happening across our movement as a result of art being used to do mission. We’re grateful for the creativity and skill God has given us and we’re excited to continue to see how he will use art to build his kingdom among the nations.