When a hyper-sexualised rap artist channels the most holy “Mother of God”, is it blasphemy or art?
It can be both, says Matthew Tan, a senior lecturer in theology at University of Notre Dame.
“Operations of grace can actually be at work, even in attempts at transgression and blasphemy,” he says.
“If anything, it can communicate a very profound truth: that God can even be at work in these depictions.”
This includes depictions, he says, like David LaChapelle’s photograph of rapper Nicki Minaj, which draws on religious iconography of the Virgin Mary.
It’s one of four photographs Minaj recently used to announce her pregnancy on social media. (The other three were more Harajuku-Barbie than Holy Mother.)
But Minaj isn’t the first celebrity to embody the Virgin Mary in a maternity photo shoot.
Singer Beyoncé Knowles-Carter did so in 2017, announcing on Instagram — à la Mary — that she and husband Jay-Z were expecting twins.
One month after the birth, Beyoncé published another photo rich with Catholic iconography, only this time she was cradling her newborns, Rumi and Sir.
Sexy mothers and the stain of Eve
According to Kinitra Brooks, a scholar with Michigan State University English department, both Minaj and Beyoncé are challenging notions of race, purity, and motherhood through these photographs.
“[The Virgin Mary] is the first mother who doesn’t have the stain of Eve,” she says.
“So, she becomes this mother that we judge all motherhood by — which is just problematic.
In Roman Catholicism, it is believed that Mary was conceived and born free of original sin. This is referred to as the “immaculate conception” — not to be confused with the “virgin birth”, the belief that Mary conceived and birthed Jesus while remaining a virgin.
Catholics uphold that Mary retained perpetual virginity throughout her married life.
This belief is disputed by other Christian denominations and some scholars, who point to biblical references that Jesus had brothers and sisters — though Catholics uphold these figures were cousins or children of Joseph from an earlier marriage.
“Jesus was one of many children, so eventually some fun was had,” Dr Brooks contends.
Dr Brooks believes that Minaj’s portrait, in particular, seeks to dismantle the idea that women lose their sexuality when they become mothers.
She adds that Beyoncé’s portrait with her twins not only references Catholicism, but also African spiritual symbology.
“I like to call it the Oshun photo shoot, because it has a lot of Oshun imagery mixed up with the Virgin Mary imagery,” she says.
Oshun, also spelled Osun, is a goddess or deity of the Yoruba people of Nigeria, Benin, Togo and Ghana.
She is associated with water, fertility and motherhood and, Dr Brooks says, is viewed as “the first woman to give birth to twins” within this African faith system.
Dr Brooks says Beyoncé has increasingly invoked African religious practices and deities in her music and imagery since that 2017 maternity shoot.
The artist’s latest visual album Black Is King, released last month, is a celebration of these influences. The film references Oshun through recurring themes of water and motherhood, and Beyoncé dons the yellow-golden tones associated with the deity.
Lyrically, the reference is explicit. In the track Mood 4 Eva, she sings: “I am the Nala, sister of Naruba, Oshun, Queen Sheba, I am the mother.”
Why black shouldn’t equal lack
Beyoncé and Minaj’s nods to the Holy Mother don’t just counter notions of purity, they defy assumptions about race, says Dr Brooks.
“They are definitely pushing back on the problematic construct of black motherhood,” she says.
“[That’s the idea that] ‘black mothers don’t get married, black mothers don’t take care of their children, black mothers are poor.'”
Instead, she says, these portraits celebrate black motherhood — endowing it with a blessed, regal nature — and reinforce Mary’s ethnicity.
According to Dr Tan, there are many representations of Mary as a woman of colour in Asian, African and South American communities.
“The most famous is the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico, where she’s depicted as a black woman,” he says.
“God can be present through all of these cultures, and Mary is the kind of representative of that.”
FrankenMary and immortality
For Dr Tan, this idea — that God can be present in all cultures, all art forms — can be taken one step further.
He believes God can also be found in the kitsch, including the controversial statues made by French artist Soasig Chamaillard.
The works transform traditional Virgin Mary figures into pop culture icons — think Super Mario, Hello Kitty, Frankenstein, and the pink Power Ranger. In some, Mary cradles a baby Elmo or Pikachu instead of baby Jesus.
“That’s one way of reading it, but I think it’s a very shallow way of reading it.”
Dr Tan thinks there’s more at play — like the juxtaposition between Mary’s eternal nature and the fleeting lifespan of the kitsch.
Roman Catholics believe Mary was assumed “body and soul” into heaven. That belief is celebrated annually during the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, on 15 August.
“Mary stands as a symbol of hope for what we as Christians hope to achieve, which is this immortality,” Dr Tan explains.
And perhaps, he says, immortality is precisely what Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé are striving for as artists.
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