Connect with us

Culture

Confronting What It Means to Be Black in America Through Faith and Art

Published

on

When Mark Doox entered an Eastern Orthodox monastery in Texas in 1987, he thought he might have a calling as a monk. A year later, he realized he didn’t. But he found something else in the monastery’s chapel: images of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary painted in the Byzantine style, their serene faces set against great golden halos. “It was almost like a physical vision,” he said.

Doox decided then and there to become an iconographer. But as a Black man who came up in the 1960s, Doox wrestled with the racism he experienced in society and the church — and with the prospect of creating icons of a white Jesus.

“I thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to express this spirituality, but dealing with the existential quandaries of what it means to be Black in America?” he said.

After leaving the monastery, Doox went on to do just that, creating icons for two singular houses of worship in San Francisco: the St. John Coltrane Church, whose patron saint is the jazz legend, and the nearby St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, whose panoply of saints includes 90 people and four beasts, all dancing together.

Doox’s church commissions lean toward the reverential, often depicting Black people as holy figures, or holy figures as Black people. While creating these sacred works for others, Doox was crafting his own absurdist tale that has led to a new illustrated art book, “The N-Word of God.”

The 366-page opus, which Fantagraphics will publish on Feb. 27, centers on a character named Saint Sambo, a blackface figure in a top hat and chains, his face plastered with an exaggerated smile outlined in white that harks back to minstrelsy days. In it, Saint Sambo transforms from an object of derision to a true savior of his people.

That story — which includes paintings of God’s backside (referred to as “the Divine White Booty of God”), the Virgin Mary as Aunt Jemima and the Madonna and Child in blackface — lands like a provocative punch in the chops.

“Mark is caricaturing this idea of minstrelsy that has been foisted on Black people, and even adopted by them, along with the idea of the white Christ,” said W. Gabriel Selassie, a professor of Africana Studies at California State University, Northridge.

“The N-Word of God” is the iconographer’s first book and represents the culmination of a spiritual journey of more than three decades, Doox, 65, said in an interview. It’s “a fulfillment of the original vision I had in the Orthodox chapel at the monastery,” he said.

Doox, the youngest of three, was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio. “We were extremely poor,” he said. His father had a steady job at an electric company; his mother worked as a maid.

When an elementary schoolteacher praised Doox’s reading in a report card, his mother was elated, he said, since she herself was illiterate. He became a fervent reader of comic books (Marvel, not DC) and fiction (Kurt Vonnegut was a favorite) and joined his high school’s chess and tennis teams. “I was a nerd,” he said. “But I was a nerd who could possibly kick your butt.”

After high school, Doox enrolled in the Columbus College of Art & Design. While there, a woman invited Doox to attend her church. She was very beautiful, he said, so he went. Soon, Doox found Jesus, “this mystical being of love,” he said, and left art school for good.

“I went out on a quest,” he said, describing an ongoing spiritual search, with stops in Hinduism and the Hare Krishna movement, to capture that feeling of all-encompassing love he had first experienced at art school.

With $12 in his pocket, Doox went to California, eventually landing in San Francisco, where he found himself living on the streets and helping out at a soup kitchen. The pastor running the place thought Doox might have a higher calling than ladling soup, which is how Doox ended up at the Texas monastery, learning how to scratch-carve images of saints onto the surface of goose eggs.

When he returned to San Francisco, Doox, egg in hand, paid a visit to the St. John Coltrane Church. As fate would have it, the pastor there had been looking for someone to paint icons of the saxophonist.

“One Sunday, this young man shows up and he’s got a goose egg with an icon on it,” said Archbishop Franzo King, the church’s co-founder. “And I said, ‘My brother. We’ve been waiting for you.’”

Doox wavered, unsure whether Coltrane was “worthy of veneration,” King said.

“Mark wasn’t a jazzman,” he added, “didn’t know anything about Coltrane.”

Doox ultimately came around, connecting his search for a God of love with the Coltrane ideal of “a love supreme,” the title of the musician’s acclaimed 1965 album. In his icons, Doox portrays Coltrane in flowing white robes, his head encircled by a golden halo, divine flames burning inside the jazzman’s tenor saxophone. Even now, these images are among Doox’s most popular works, appearing in The New Yorker and T: The New York Times Style Magazine.

He painted in an unused storage shed on the grounds of what would later become the St. Gregory of Nyssa Church. Donald Schell, St. Gregory’s co-founder, allowed Doox to work there when the artist wasn’t volunteering at the soup kitchen.

Doox kept his paint and other supplies in the storage space — and, Schell realized, a hot plate and a cot, too. “There was a point when it became clear that Mark was living in the shed,” he said.

In 1998, once St. Gregory’s was completed, Schell approached Doox about his plan to fill it with icons of dancing saints. “Mark said, and I quote, ‘I believe I have an anointing to do that work,’” Schell said.

From then until 2008, Doox painted larger-than-life portraits of beloved “saints” that included César Chávez, Sojourner Truth and Anne Frank; their dancing figures form a circle around the church’s rotunda.

At times when the church halted the work to raise funds for its next phase, Doox delivered auto parts for various companies and worked on what would eventually become “The N-Word of God.”

In 2009, Doox met Kerry James Marshall, the acclaimed painter and sculptor, at a lecture that Marshall was presenting at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The meeting resulted in a four-month mentorship, which Doox credits with helping him develop the visual approach he calls “Byz-Dada,” a mix of Byzantine imagery with the satirical elements of Dadaism.

Since then, Doox’s work has been featured in a 2021 documentary (NPR’s “Saint Coltrane: The Church Built on ‘A Love Supreme’”) and analyzed in academic texts (Pennsylvania State University Press’s 2023 “Is Byzantine Studies a Colonialist Discipline?”).

Doox’s art has also appeared on posters and signs at protests against police brutality. (“Our Lady of Ferguson” — which imagines a Black Virgin Mary in the cross hairs of a gun, her hands raised not in supplication but surrender — is currently on display at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York.)

As for “The N-Word of God,” the book is both a labor of love and a greatest-hits collection of Doox’s work. Even so, its provocative themes and images have challenged friends and allies.

“What’s going on here? Is it just meant to offend?” Schell wondered. “What is the painful, struggling, angry, revelatory energy that makes an icon painter want to paint the ass of God?”

Doox acknowledges his work can be tough to take. Seeing Black people as “human beings is devastating to the American mind,” he said. “Because then you have to say, ‘What have we done? How have we treated you?’ — and I haven’t seen too many people who want to talk about that.”

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *