Nicolás Dumit Estévez Raful Espejo: I am elated to get to converse with you, Laura. It is not usual for me to be in dialogue with a guest with whom I can talk about the Caribbean, theology, creativity, and The Bronx in one place! Thank you for the “yes” to this Q&I.
Laura James: Ha! Yes Nicolás, thank you so much for inviting me. I must say, ever since we did that talk together at the Allentown Museum, I’ve just been that much more impressed with you and your vision. Before that I didn’t know you had such a strong connection to theology and religion, so it was really interesting to learn about those aspects of your work during your talk. So yeah, thank you, I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you today.
NDERE: Before we move forward into the complexities behind your work, can you introduce me to the theology shaping Ethiopian iconography as it pertains to orthodox Christianity? I am asking because of my specific understanding of the icon in Catholicism as an entry point into the Divine and my limited familiarity with this in the orthodox context.
LJ: OK, so Ethiopia has been a Christian country since the 4th century when the king was converted by two European missionaries who were shipwrecked there. Many of the pictures that the Ethiopian Christians saw early on were images from Europe, so there were lots of Marys and Crucifixion scenes, and the early art of Ethiopia is strongly connected to that European tradition.
NDERE: How did you get involved with the work that you do? I know of your illustrations of the Book of the Gospels. It is rare to see creatives who allow their spiritual selves to be out in public.
LJ: So, I like to say that I fell into being an artist. Honestly, I believe I was an artist in a past life, so I had I hardly had a choice but to do art this time around. It’s sort of a long story… I went to church with my family growing up; a Brethren church. There were no images on the walls, and we were not allowed to picture Bible characters, but we had children’s Bibles with all kinds of weird and fantastical images. One of which was the image of “white Jesus”—with ridiculously blonde hair and blue eyes, looking like, you know, sort of like a superhero or just some kind of alien creature, distinct from everyone else in the picture. So, I was confused by the Bible, because I could see that Jesus was so very different than me and everybody else in our church. He was just so outside of us I wasn’t really sure how to reconcile that.