Friday, April 22, 2011

Mehndi Gospel Paintings

God's Promise to Abraham.
Mehandi and acrylic on canvas. 2010
On this Easter weekend, I hope you are well and will have a chance to reflect on God' passion, mercy and love for you.  The resurrection is the event around which all of history and the universe revolves.  It is our reason for hope and joy in a world deeply scarred and broken:  "Behold, I make all things new" (Rev. 21:5).  So with a heart full of gladness, I wanted to celebrate Easter with a post about an example of artistic contextualization that portrays the story of mankind's fall and God's desire to save and redeem us (see my previous post about contextualized henna here).

Today's post is an interview with Kimberly M. Stephens who recently returned from an assignment in South Asia.  As her time there drew to a close, she created a public art exhibit entitled "A True Story."  It was an exhibit of 19 paintings, acrylic and mehndi on canvas.  Each painting tells a story from God's Word.

How did you get started overseas and how long have you been in your current location?  What is the assignment of your team and what is your individual role on the team? 
I have been on [various] trips since I was in middle school. However, my first international trip was in college to Tokyo, Japan. This trip solidified my calling overseas. My [most recent] term ended November 2010 and I was there for almost two years... We [worked in] slums, along with trainings among [locals].

What role (if any) did the arts play in your desire to serve overseas, or did the decision to utilize visual arts come to you after entering the field?
I went to the field under a creative arts assignment. Upon arriving, that did change, but my team was very creative arts minded, so we tried to incorporate the arts whenever we could.

What attracted you to mehndi? Are there other cultural art forms that you find intriguing?
Mehndi is such a unique and beautiful art form. I love its detail and intricacy.

Why did you decide to have an art show as a form of outreach, as opposed to another approach-- e.g., music, medicine, teaching, friendships, business, etc. (or are any of these part of your service already)? How did the opportunity come about to have the show?
Our main form of outreach was through relationships. A lot of our [activities] involved lower caste peoples and so we wanted to have [interaction] with high caste, as well, and our team really felt that the arts is a way to reach high caste people groups. Basically the art show was an experiment to see if this type of outreach would be effective.

Creation. 12x16
Mehandi and acrylic on canvas. 2010
How did you decide on a theme, number of paintings, subject matter and technique? Did you obtain art supplies locally, or elsewhere?
I picked stories, 18 total,... that could give an adequate survey of God’s Word. The exhibit began with Creation, followed by 5 stories from the Old Testament, 9 stories from the New Testament, 1 Psalm, and then one painting that conveyed Creation to Christ. I obtained all of my art supplies from a local art supply store.

In general, what was your process for creating the individual designs and layout for each painting? What factors determined whether or not to use scripture in a painting?
A fellow worker had worked with some nationals on creating a Mehndi storying book that would be used to actually draw on hands. Some of my designs were inspired by these designs, and some just came to me. The use of scripture in a painting was really just a style element. However, [regarding] the scripture that was used in certain paintings, I made sure that it told of God’s character and an important aspect of the particular story.

Birth of Jesus. Mehandi and acrylic on canvas. 2010
Most of the paintings are pretty abstract. Since the Incarnation is such a wild concept, I'd love to hear more about the imagery for “The Birth of Jesus.”
“Birth of Jesus” is probably the most abstract. Throughout the entire collection, if a sun-looking symbol is present, that is representative of God/Jesus. So, at the bottom you have Jesus (the sun) being born, the two peacocks facing each other represent that God and man can have a right relationship. The three symbols above the peacocks are the three gifts from the wise men. Then, the last symbol is the Star that pointed to Christ and that Jesus is the Light. There are a few words written that say “Light, Savior, Promise, and Know God.”

What was the response to your art show, both from believers and nonbelievers? Did nationals seem to accept the way you manipulated and reinterpreted the use of mehndi designs?
The art show was very well received. Most could not believe 1- that is was actually mehndi and 2- that a foreigner created it. Many people said they had never seen anything like this before. Many felt proud that a foreigner would take the time to learn their art and develop it in such a way.

What is your opinion about the use of contextualized visual arts among nonwestern believers-- e.g., in worship, personal devotion, individual artistic expression, etc.? Do you see it as dangerous (possibly leading to syncretism), or as a positive way for them to express themselves and their love for God? Have you run into any of these issues during your time in south Asia?
I think contextualization, as long as it does not cross any biblical lines, is key... I think it’s important for people to keep their culture when possible, because it can bring more people to the Truth.

Bleeding Woman (detail).
Mehandi and acrylic on canvas. 2010
If you had to do the mehndi art show all over again, would you have done anything differently? In your experiences so far of using art in overseas, what practices or attitudes have you changed along the way?
I would like to have a better method of follow-up. Maybe even have a time where people could ask questions and have discussion.

Do you have any other plans or dreams for using contextualized arts?
I am currently praying about and working towards developing an organization that creates jobs and provides adequate wages for slum people. I am currently working on a line of mehndi products (paintings, clocks, lamps, stationery, journals, jewelry). Many Indians already know the art of mehndi, because it is so prevalent in their culture. Even if they don’t know or want to do the mehndi aspect, they could work on the product side. My vision is to have an organization that provides outreach, discipleship, and fair trade.

A True Story. Mehandi and acrylic on canvas. 2010 


  1. I’ve never seen henna used narratively before, nor have I ever seen it on canvas. Is there any precedent for that? These works are very creative and beautiful. I like how the artist makes use of henna’s celebratory connotations to convey the celebratory message of the gospel. In "Birth of Jesus," Christ encompasses all activity within the frame—he’s the sun at the bottom, the star at the top. It’s as if he’s holding everything together in an embrace, making all things cohere, in heaven and on Earth (Colossians 1:17). The artist’s positioning of these two divine symbols reminds me that Christ is both “infant lowly” and exalted king.

    Thank you for sharing.

    -Victoria J.

  2. Victoria,

    Thanks for your comment! I don't know of any precedents for this narrative use of henna, so as far as I know its use for evangelism is fairly new. As far as using henna patterns on canvas at all, I don't know... Be sure to check out my other blog post on henna evangelism here:

  3. mehandi on canvas great to see this.....