|Jesus of the People copyright 1999|
Janet McKenzie www.janetmckenzie.com
The National Catholic Reporter sponsored a competition at the millennium seeking a new image of Christ and my painting Jesus of the People was selected first place winner by judge, Sister Wendy Beckett of BBC fame. Revealed for the first time on the Today Show, my dark interpretation, which was modeled by a woman, received enormous worldwide publicity – and initially, a huge negative response.I painted this work so my then 15 year-old nephew would have an image of Jesus he could find himself celebrated within, and as a way to include people of color and women in the physicality of Jesus.
On September 11, 2001 Jesus of the People was on exhibit in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The gallery evolved into a chapel but the owners wondered if anyone would come to see the work. Unexpectedly many did come and stood before the painting, in silence, crying. At another exhibit, outside of Baltimore, an elderly man of color, a retired pastor, waited a long time to meet me. Holding my hands for a long time, and looking directly into my eyes, all he said was thank you. Although never asked, reproductions of Jesus of the People were flown into Tanzania and hand carried to Ghana, Nigeria and Lagos. Viewers have repeatedly told me that someone they adore looks “just like” Jesus of the People. The part I love the most is that invariably they do not, but I know this - they are “seeing” through the heart rather than simply what the eye beholds, and this is transcendent.Although the hate I received in response to Jesus of the People was challenging on many levels, over time acceptance and gratitude now far outweigh the negative. Having the work invited for exhibition at such honorable institutions as the Haggerty Museum of Art, Milwaukee and Loyola University Museum of Art, Chicago is affirming. Yet nothing pleases me more than knowing Jesus of the People, this dark and inclusive interpretation, may be the very first visual encounter with Christ some people have.