An artist in Australia has made international headlines for a picture on display now at one of the country’s major art festivals. The controversial piece portrays a classic-looking image of Christ that turns into Sept. 11 terrorist leader Osama bin Laden as viewers move a few feet to the side. “Bearded Orientals: Making the Empire Cross” is one of two pieces by Priscilla Joyce Bracks that uses religious imagery to convey her somewhat ambiguous message (the other is a portrait of Mary wearing traditional Muslim garments). When the bin Laden/Jesus piece first debuted, Bracks told reporters that it was meant to be “concerned with the relationship between contemporary popular culture and the futures we create.” Later, she said it could be viewed as a symbol of good vs. evil. But whatever the artist’s meaning, many Christians have expressed anger over the visual comparison of Christ and a terrorist leader.
In Sweden, another religiously charged piece of artwork has created international tension. A newspaper there recently published a piece of artwork that depicted Islam’s prophet Muhammad on the head of a dog. Many Muslims not only view a dog as an “impure” animal, but also see any visual representation of Muhammad as blasphemous. Officials in Muslim countries including Iran and Pakistan have complained about the images, and though a Swedish government spokeswoman said they “expressed regret that the publication of the cartoons had hurt the feelings of Muslims,” she also reiterated Sweden’s freedom of speech and free press: “We can’t apologise for the cartoons because we did not publish them.”
The incident recalls a similar story from early 2006, when global violence broke out following the publication of several Muhammad-depicting cartoons in a Danish newspaper. In both incidents, the artists behind the works said that the images were not meant to be hateful expressions against Islam, but rather commentary about its place in modern culture. The artist behind the Swedish cartoon told the AP, “I’m not against Islam. Everybody knows that.” But like the bin Laden/Jesus portrait, the work’s meaning is often secondary to the initial shock of imagery to the viewing audience.
And though there has been no violence reported in the case of the Australian bin Laden image, some Christians have taken to their own form of protest in other cases of offensive artistic expression. A recent Madonna concert tour drew boycotts after she used crucifixes and other religious symbols throughout the performance. Last year, some Christians even organized a boycott of the film End of the Spear—an overtly evangelical movie that told the true story of Christian missionaries—because the lead actor was gay.
As some parts of the world become increasingly sensitive to faith-based cultures, others continue to make headlines by using (sometimes politically incorrect) art to deliver ideas. But the stories of controversial art and edgy expressions of ideas also call into question not just issues of free speech, but, for the Christian, the proper response to ideological conflict.