“Janet McKenzie: A Sacred Artist’s Life of Creative Activism.” Exploring Notability for Women in Religion, ATLA Press, Forthcoming 2020
I first saw Janet McKenzie’s artwork while I was a graduate student studying religion and art at Yale Divinity School. The National Catholic Reporter had issued a full-color supplement of the results from an art competition titled Jesus 2000: Jesus for the Third Millennium. The call had been for submissions of original artwork to answer the question, "What would Jesus Christ look like in the year 2000?" Over sixteen hundred images were submitted from over one thousand artists around the globe. The supplement included the top sixty images, depicting Jesus in a variety of ways from realistic to abstract, and traditional to contemporary. The winning image, Janet McKenzie’s Jesus of the People, appeared on the cover.
I was captivated by this dark-skinned, clean-shaven Jesus who was wrapped in a mantle and wearing a crown of thorns while gazing at the viewer with a gentle countenance. I was even more intrigued when I learned that the model for the image was an African American woman. This book chapter explores the artistic development of Janet McKenzie and how her art propelled her to international fame. By following the contours of McKenzie’s life and career, we will see how art, particularly sacred art, can speak to social tensions of a particular time, and how a painting can become iconic when underlying themes resonate long after the particular historical moment has passed.