An augmented reality "glitch" of a depiction of "White Jesus"
RIP White Jesus brings together augmented reality, performance art, and reality TV into one exhibition via Think Tank Gallery, which asks audiences to consider the icon of “White Jesus.”
By any measurement, Summer 2020 was a season of major upheaval in the United States. Under the backdrop of a historic pandemic that disproportionately impacts marginalized communities and people of color, the homicides of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor sparked demonstrations for racial justice across the nation—core to which have been calls for the dismantling of white supremacist institutions and monuments that represent structural oppression.
Now, conceptual performance artist, filmmaker, and comedian Hisham Fageeh is seeking to dismantle what he sees as the most racist monument of all: “White Jesus.” Despite the prevailing Western depiction of Jesus as a White man, the historical Jesus is said to have been a brown-skinned Middle Eastern Jew.
Titled, RIP White Jesus, the multi-phase exhibition incorporates reality TV casting, augmented reality (AR), and a gallery show. It will mark Think Tank Gallery’s 10th Anniversary, as well as a farewell to its current location in Downtown Los Angeles as a result of the pandemic. Inspired by the work of activists and demonstrators, Think Tank Gallery Director Jacob Patterson wanted to donate the remaining time in the physical gallery space to contribute to anti-racism.
“The idea that kept popping up in my mind was the toppling of racist monuments, because that will be something that's burned in everyone's mind for the year 2020,” Patterson said in an interview with the author.
In seeking artists currently working within that subject matter, Patterson ultimately met Fageeh.
“What drew me to Hisham and his work was that he takes a unique perspective on what’s happening in our current moment and ties it to broader concepts,” Patterson said. “He was like, ‘If we’re going to go after racist monuments, let’s skip right to the boss battle.’ So we decided to topple the racist monument of White Jesus and elect a new one.”
Fageeh, whose past work includes “No Woman, No Drive” and the Netflix film Barakah Meets Barakah, is no stranger to surprising audiences and using satire as provocation, akin to the sensibility one might expect from Nathan Fielder or Sacha Baron Cohen. Still, taking on the monument of “White Jesus” is a sensitive and likely inflammatory topic at this moment in history—especially for an Arab-American artist.
“At the apex of globalization, we see the forces that are colliding with each other,” Fageeh said in an interview with the author. “We see that teleologically, we are at a crossroads. We no longer know what our predisposition is cosmologically, so we have to go back to our roots. And we were, after all, made in His image. If He was, in fact a white man, then everything that is distant from Him is demonic and everything that is adjacent to Him, is angelic or godly.”
In July, a casting call appeared on reality TV casting sites. The call? For the role of Jesus.
“Liberals, Hollywood elites, and the intelligentsia would argue that it's already been settled: that White Jesus has already been martyred and killed,” Fageeh said. “We are debating whether He is in fact going to be a martyr, or be like fallen Confederate monuments, if He will be demonized and erased from history. Liberal Hollywood operates in a White supremacy apparatus, which is: you have a bucket of diarrhea or a bowl of diarrhea, and those are your two choices. We're now casting the new Jesus.”
In the submission guidelines, actors are instructed to explain why they believe they “have the essence to uniquely portray Jesus on screen,” as well as read lines that are purportedly transliterated from the Aramaic, the language Jesus is said to have spoken.
In July, a call appeared on casting forums seeking a new Jesus.
According to Fageeh and Patterson, submissions have ranged from Netflix stars to adult entertainers. These submissions will purportedly involve an American Idol-style voting for the ‘New Jesus.’ Both declined to offer further comment on what the final product of these submissions would be, only that it will appear in the gallery somehow, and that the concept of self-idolatry will tie into the larger aims of the show.
“Just like we're made in His image, our lives are actually revelation in themselves,” Fageeh said. “So if we think about any one audition, it is a hermeneutic departure from what is ‘right,’ in terms of the discourse that comes at the beginning of what we work from—meaning if I see someone audition where their truth did not resonate, it simply means that it belongs to a different Hegelian school. Self-actualization happens through our perception, our manifestations. We don't know whether we live in a simulation or not, but what we do know is that the projections are real.”
But how exactly do you critique the White appropriation of the figure of Jesus in a rigorous, artistically compelling way?
The team behind RIP White Jesus turned to augmented reality, using the digital interface to “glitch” historical images of White Jesus. Further subverting expectations, RIP White Jesus will actually launch first as a book of the same name. The book will feature White Jesus imagery curated by Tatum Hawkins that will be “glitched” in augmented reality via EyeJack, an AR platform accessible through an app or in web browsers with WebAR.
Users can scan this QR code to activate the RIP White Jesus AR component directly from their browsers.
These algorithmically generated animations were created by Mark Sabb, who used a dataset consisting of White Jesus imagery to build a model that could recognize and glitch these depictions. Sabb, who works across digital formats including VR/AR/3D and AI, saw a unique convergence of his art form with his life experience.
“This is something that I've thought about essentially my whole life,” Sabb said in an interview with the author. “I'm Haitian and I grew up in a very traditional Catholic family, and the first thing that I noticed early on was like, okay, this is really weird that we're praying to this deity who looks nothing like us. In fact, it looks most like the person most likely to oppress us.”
NOTE: readers can activate a sample augmented reality glitch directly from this browser on the two “White Jesus” images that follow. Using the QR code pictured above, users will open the EyeJack portal. When loaded, point the phone’s back-facing camera at the images.
'The Transfiguration' Pinoacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City, Italy (1516-1520). Selected image from the 'RIP White Jesus' AR book that users can activate in augmented reality via the EyeJack QR code above.
Glitch art, by nature, involves embracing errors and corruptions as practice and art. So it happened that glitching, delivered through augmented reality, happened to be the right form both aesthetically and in concept for dismantling White Jesus.
“My entire practice has gone into not just dismantling iconography but dismantling the idea behind these sorts of accepted rulers,” Sabb said. “So it’s ironic, it’s right there; not only was Jesus not described as white in scripture, but White Jesus was pushed onto us. So purposely dismantling that just made so much sense to me.”
Hawkins’s curatorial work was also informed by her lived experience.
“My Asian-American parents once told me the reason why I wasn't a target of racism was because I was pretty,” said RIP White Jesus Curator Tatum Hawkins in an interview with the author. “Beauty is a toxic construct that, since my teen years when I was told that, has left me permanently contemplating the impermanence of my value. What happens when my one piece of protection from the bad things of the world—like racism—eventually fades away? As the female voice of this collaboration, and as the curator of the White Jesus images being used, I was fascinated by the parallel of dismantling toxic constructs of beauty found in religious art from the 15th, 16th, and 17th Centuries and so on that not only perpetuated a false image of the ‘savior’ as a White man, but which also served to protect the oppressors from the oppressed.”
Cover image for the 'RIP White Jesus' AR-activated book
Hawkins further explained that the beauty of these classical representations of White Jesus serve as distractions from the social, cultural, and political realities implicit in the appropriation of Jesus as a White man—for the oppressors and the oppressed. To that end, her curatorial approach sought to address the complicated, and oftentimes dissembling relationship art has with oppression.
“They can't see how White Jesus himself is the facade covering up centuries of trauma and a dishonest philosophy of who ‘saves’ and ‘protects’ that needs to be exposed and taken down, just like with what's happening with racist monuments all over the country,” Hawkins said. “I tried to find the most blonde, ridiculous, and yes, beautiful Jesuses I could for our book and exhibition, so that when AR deconstructs it all by glitching out the whiteness from each piece, the contrast will be that much more shocking and force people to go conceptually beyond the surface.”
And with those AR deconstructions, it was also important to ensure that the new work wasn’t unintentionally reinforcing the very monuments that the team was trying to dismantle.
“With glitching we destroy the images and make this new abstract art from them,” Sabb said. “Because if you just put a black face on top of a white Jesus, that's just blackface right? That’s the same problem that Disney has or any of these companies have—you can’t just take a white idea of a character and then change their skin tone. This route of attacking it through glitch is really what makes the most sense, especially in a world where now people are talking about ideas like digital blackface.”
Jesus Christ and the Incredulous Apostle Thomas,' Antonio Busca, 1625-1684, Castello Visconteo, Italy. Augmented Reality glitching by Mark Sabb via EyeJack, curated by Tatum Hawkins
Fageeh appeared to be in-character during our interview, but though the affect is pretentious, discrete moments during the interview made clear that the artist’s intentions were deeper than to pull a stunt. This exhibition is designed to provoke questions about the colonial legacies inherent in the neoliberal world order—and how White Jesus is entangled in—and representative of—those legacies.
“Equality entails identity in a post-identity politics world,” Fageeh said. “But really the tradition presupposes declared indivisibility, and that's what it means to be othered vis-à-vis white supremacy. When we think about America policing the world, what started as maybe an altruistic endeavor quickly shifted to performative and then naturally evolved into hegemony. What we're trying to do is sort of flip that on its head and make it into this transcendental and infinitesimal sort of experience where, you sort of dish it out, and now you’ve got to take it.”
The first items related to RIP White Jesus, including the eponymous book, can be found starting today on the official exhibition website. Other items, ranging from a hymn-filled feet-washing ceremony with Fageeh to full-sized “White Jesus Deconstruction” prints, will become available in the lead up to the official opening in October.