This BYU graduate makes religious art more inclusive for people of color

SALT LAKE CITY – The old adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” has great meaning for Melissa Tshikamba. As an artist, Tshikamba speaks through her paintings – and she hopes to say a lot.

Growing up as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Alberta, Canada, Tshikamba remembers feeling a disconnect between what he was taught at home and at church, and what she saw depicted in the pictures accompanying these teachings. In the paintings and pictures hanging in the buildings of the church she attended or showed him during Sunday school classes, Tshikamba did not see herself represented.

“I think that for a world religion, we have to better reflect the world in our art,” she said. “I think we need representations of all ethnicities because most of the people in the world are people of color.”

As a black woman, Tshikamba said she rarely felt a connection with the religious art used to represent her faith throughout her life and, because of this, her own work is now largely creation-oriented. images that better represent the church’s world population. .

“I’ve never been able to see myself growing up in art, so it’s empowering to see an image like me. It shocks my soul. Art can make you feel the love of God, so it’s important to see yourself there, ”she said.

Although painting people and characters was not something she initially felt best at, over time Tshikamba became drawn to the idea of ​​showcasing people of color in her art.

“I am drawn to people’s faces. You can see their soul. I love people and I know better how to paint what I know, ”she said. “It’s my outlet and it’s the way I know how to express my feelings, and I guess changing the narrative with my art is my goal.”

As a recent graduate of Brigham Young University’s Illustration program, Tshikamba already recognizes success as an active artist. With a growing number of followers on Instagram and on her website, she finds an audience eager for the work she has to offer.

“Making ethnic art the norm is one of my goals,” she said. “I want to uplift women, especially black women.”

As the youngest of eight children in her family, Tshikamba said she often felt like “the strange man”. Not only is she the only artist in her family, but she has also always recognized the benefits of her clearer skin.

Misconceptions about lighter and darker skin color are prevalent among communities of color, Tshikamba explained, noting that skin bleaching continues to be a popular practice, even though people know it. is harmful.

“Auset and Heru” by Melissa Tshikamba.
Melissa Tshikamba

Even within faith communities, there are a lot of misconceptions about what it means to be created in the image of God, she said. Many people seem to believe that because God is represented as if he were European, then only Europeans are like God.

“People say the most ignorant things. And the kids are so confident. As a child, I interpreted almost all images literally, “she said.” But we’re supposed to love each other, so I try to reset people’s minds so they know they are loved. and beautiful despite their darker skin. “

Tshikamba said she recalled learning that dark skin was a curse, a teaching she internalized as a child. It wasn’t until some of these similar teachings were reiterated during her time at BYU that she realized the harm these mistaken teachings can have on a person’s identity.

Recalling another example from his childhood, Tshikamba said, “My brother was told that when you go to Heaven you will turn white. I grew up believing this and worshiped whites more than myself. I noticed that I had also internalized racism because of the way I was taught. ”

While at BYU, a large painting was on display at the art museum that represents “the whitest paradise I have ever seen,” Tshikamba said. Pictures like this, she continued, reinforce those ideas that whiteness is better.

Learning more about the history of black people in the church and how they were or were not represented and included throughout the Restoration, Tshikamba said she became more aware of the suffering suffered by others. colored limbs.

“When you don’t recognize the past or try to ignore it, people can have doubts. Tshikamba said, noting that some of his own family have left the church because of the treatment or misunderstandings they suffered.

“I know so many people who have more life-changing experiences than I do,” she said. “I know I’ve been treated better, but for me, I’m such a visual learner, and it’s the lack of images and representation that hit me.”

Although she recognized the under-representation of blacks in religious art long before she began her art studies at BYU, Tshikamba said her time in college was like a “wake-up call” to the power these Singular images had to shape the narrative of people of color.

“I realized there was racism everywhere. And once you see it, it’s like you can’t see it, ”she said.

While her overall experience in her program and at BYU has been positive, Tshikamba said she also often feels disappointed with a lack of understanding and empathy. Often times she tried to evoke the hurt she had suffered or pointed out the lack of representation given to people of color and was immediately shut down, both by friends and sometimes by leaders.

BYU graduate artist Melissa Tshikamba emphasizes people of color in her artwork to help empower underrepresented groups of people through her art.

BYU graduate artist Melissa Tshikamba emphasizes people of color in her artwork to help empower underrepresented groups of people through her art.
Provided by Melissa Tshikamba

“I had these people who I thought were friends, but they were looking at me like I was crazy,” she said. “I’ve often been struck by the response that ‘it doesn’t matter’. These listless responses left a mark on me. … It’s hard to talk about it for those who haven’t experienced it.

Recent events and the current political climate, however, are helping to change that, Tshikamba said. “It forced people who weren’t in the know to make a choice. “

For Tshikamba, his job is above all to love his neighbors by making sure that they know that they are made in the image of God.

“We all have small assignments throughout our lives and I feel like I’m meant to uplift people through art,” she said. “Art strengthened me and made me see better. I can visualize God as I see myself. It built my testimony because it made me understand who I am – I feel like I am more true to myself.

His hope is that his art will help even out the performance. It is his own way of drawing people’s attention to these issues and helping to normalize religious art featuring people of color.

With most of her work featuring black figures, often decorated or highlighted with gold, Tshikamba said she strives to dispel negative associations of darkness.

“I’m trying to change that narrative and make Black look like a positive thing,” she said. And gold makes it possible to underline this on each of the figures that she paints.

“I often use halos to represent their divinity and their light,” she said.

And on a personal level, painting portraits of black figures, especially in religious contexts, has helped Tshikamba feel closer to God herself.

“It made me feel comfortable with who I am and it made me proud to be who I am and not try to conform to society’s standards. It made me discover this spiritual side. I am kinder to myself and understand who I am and accept it.

God wants his children to see the divinity in them, Tshikamba said.

“We are all like gods and goddesses having human experience, and if we can see the divine in ourselves, if we can correct those past traumas and help each other see that we are divine, we are naturally closer to God, ”she said. noted. “When we see God in us, we see ourselves as divine beings.”