When you think of the Christian God, what does the great “I Am” look like? Is the presence you feel feminine or masculine? Does the Almighty resemble you or your oppressor? Do you even imagine His form at all? Unlike Judaism and Islam, which forbid the depiction of God in any way, Christianity is peculiar in almost mainstreaming a very singular image and understanding of God and the Son of God (read Jesus Christ). In most churches, Jesus is depicted as a white Caucasian man, with light-brown hair and blue eyes, despite the fact that the Bible gives scarce and conflicting accounts of his appearance.

The Book of Revelation 1:13-16 describes John’s vision of the Son of Man: “His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire; and his feet like unto fine brass [other translations: “burnished bronze”], as if they burned in a furnace.”

Daniel 10:5-6 states: “Then I lifted up mine eyes, and looked, and behold a certain man clothed in linen, whose loins were girded with fine gold of Uphaz; his body also was like the beryl [light green or bluish-green stone] and his face as the appearance of lightning, and his eyes as lamps of fire, and his arms and his feet like in colour to polished brass, and the voice of his words like the voice of a multitude.”

If Jesus could be both bronzed and green, white and brass, then why could the great “I Am”, in a physical depiction we can relate to, not be black and a woman? The Afro-Cuban, Chicago-based painter Harmonia Rosales showed us that the possibilities are in fact endless and transcendent.

The creation of God

In 2017 Rosales painted her own version of Michelangelo’s work in which she reimaged God and the First Man as black women. Her work, titled “The Creation of God”, “riffs on Michelangelo’s portrayal of God’s creation of Earth’s first human, Adam.

“But her version depicts the deity not as a white-haired white man, but as a black woman, reaching out to touch another, younger black woman,” reported The New York Post newspaper at the time.

Rosales is reported by the online magazine Face2Face Africa as saying that she wanted to see her identity as a woman of colour represented in art. “I wanted to take a significant painting, a widely recognised painting that subconsciously or consciously conditions us to see white male figures as powerful and authoritative, and flip the script; establish a counter-narrative.”

“White figures are a staple in the classic art that is featured in major museums. They are the ‘masters’ of the masterpieces. Why should that continue? When you consider that all human life came out of Africa, the Garden of Eden and all, then it only makes sense to paint God as a black woman, sparking life in her own image,” she added.

Read: The relevance of African indigenous religions in the 21st Century

Some critics have described Rosales’ artwork as “disgusting”, “cultural appropriation”, and “the desecration of an artistic masterpiece”.

“A woman is a woman, black, white or any colour,” she told BET.com. “We have been taught that God created ‘man’ in his own image. In fact, we have created God in our own image. So ‘God’ is whoever we want God to be; a representation of the ideal, of the divine, of wisdom and love and pure creativity. Let’s face it, creativity, starting with the womb, is a female attribute.”

“We have created God in our own image.” – Artist Harmonia Rosales

New World Consciousness

Despite an onslaught of negative criticism and even threats to her person, Rosales forged ahead. She created a body of work in 2018, titled “New World Consciousness”, which aimed to break down the stereotypes of the Virgin Mary and Eve by exploring the duality of the two figures and the ideological behaviours that condemn the liberated actions of women when it comes to their appearance and expressions of their sexuality.

“By making the Virgin Mary and Eve one woman, and by exploring how this one woman represents us all because we are all perfectly imperfect; by presenting Eve in the same light as we give the Virgin Mary, we begin to accept Eve and her non-conformity as we relate to her on our own life journeys,” Rosales told the online magazine Dazed Digital.

When asked why she focused on religious subject matter, she explained, “Ever since global history has been documented, religion and power went hand in hand. Sometimes that power can be abused for greed, for example, the way in which American colonists used the religion of Christianity to manipulate and control. By creating positive works of art using black women, the complete opposite from what we were used to seeing, we can begin to deconstruct our power structure.”

Rosales has shown the importance of changing the underpinning structure of art history. From cavemen, hieroglyphics to now, art history is one of the world’s most dominant histories and has helped shape our perceptions over time.

“When all we see in art history is a male-dominated, white heaven, we become the inferior to this gender and cultural imperialism.”