Black Gods: Piety and Politics
Recently a series of photos circulated online showcasing the Greek Gods with black models. The collection was created by Ana Martínez and Mario Ville from the International Center for Photography and Film in Spain. Depending on the audience, the reactions varied. My personal opinion is that the photos are stunning. I was blown away by the vibrancy and power captured in the photos. Ana and Mario were successful in expressing the essence of the Gods.
For example, the photo of Zeus (model Ricardo Nkosi) very much is recognizable as Zeus because (for me) the hair was on point and was styled in an appropriate way for Zeus. Demeter (model Isabella Menam), Aphrodite (model Aya Guey), Dionysus (model Megane Mercury) are other great depictions that capture the Gods in what is, to me, a recognizably Greek manner. This is the main reason I love the images; they captured the Greekness of the Gods in a modern way.
Beyond my own personal approval of the images from an aesthetic point of view, I do want to critique the collection because there is nuance to this topic that needs to be dealt with. I am that person who finds ways to discuss a topic from a nuanced perspective missing in most conversations. As a polytheist, I must examine things relating to the Gods and Greek religion from the non-secular perspective. Besides aesthetics, I try to gauge the level of piety something has. These are the Gods after all, I must ask myself how are their images being used, why were they made? Should I, a polytheist, be promoting secular art?
Ana and Mario, I will assume, are not polytheists. I will assume that they are admirers of classical culture for the sake of argument. Their primary audience is not other polytheists, but people who also admire classical culture from a secular perspective. The creators and primary target audience are secular with their engagement of the Gods. I am not.
Why is this important? If the creators and primary audience are not worshipers of the Gods, what is the message of the photo series? There is a huge cultural value to the photos. Classicists are giving high praise of the photos for challenging white supremacy in the field of Classical Studies. Culturally, the depiction of Greek Gods as black elevates black bodies to a divine level, a level that has been traditionally denied to black bodies in the west. Why is it important that the Greek Gods be the subject of such a project? As Natalie Wynn so rightly states, “Black people and black art are mostly excluded from museums like the Louvre…a lot of people have a deep longing for the sense of dignity and grandeur conferred by classical art.”
From a secular view, all of this is noble. From a polytheistic perspective, it can be argued that the project is impious because the images of the Gods are being used for political reasons. The Gods are not being acknowledged by the creators and audience on a religious level. These photos were not created as an offering to the Gods. They serve human agendas, wither it be political, cultural, if not merely for a photographer’s portfolio.
However, the Gods do not care about these trivial things that we mortals quibble over. I wrote this opinion piece to demonstrate religious thinking as a polytheist encountering the secular world’s interest and engagement with the Gods. In the end, I think the images have enough piety in them because any political/cultural motivation behind the photos are meant to have a positive impact on the world by combating white supremacy. For this reason, there is Justice in these photos and should not be met with anger.