YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – A statue of St Michael in the West African nation of Benin has sparked controversy as the Black Lives Movement continues to spark debate across the globe.
The statue at the Saint Jean-Baptiste parish church in Cotonou, Benin’s largest city and economic hub, shows a white archangel choking a Black devil.
Some in the country have condemned the statue as racist, and added it reminds them of the killing of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis on May 25.
His death has been the impetus for protests across the globe, including in Africa, where the long history of European colonialism still scars the continent.
“This type of image has always revolted me,” said Martial Kogon, a Beninese writer based in the diaspora.
“I reproach these statues for being the extension of a degrading and dehumanizing image of the Black man. These are stereotypes that we inherited from the colonial and slave eras and that we perpetuate without ever asking ourselves questions, “he told La Croix.
The writer called for “religious hygiene” when it comes to race-based images in church statues.
“It is not only an archangel painted in white and the devil painted with a dark color, but rather of an archangel with ‘white’ features and straight hair and of a demon with ‘Black’ features and frizzy hair,” he explained.
A Change.org petition to “banish racist and oppressive religious statues” has garnered over 1000 signatures.
The originator of the petition Faridath Yessoufou, said the statue was “symbolically another Derek Chauvin choking another Georges Floyd.”
Writing in L’événement Précis, Olivier Allocheme accused the Catholic Church of facilitating the slave trade, and accused it of creating a subservient attitude among African peoples.
“In the minds of the Beninese who produced, installed and who venerate these representations in the churches of Cotonou and elsewhere, the beneficent angel is necessarily white, and the evil demon is Black. Those who have lived in other parts of the world, can testify that the color of the demon depends on the people that one wants to dominate and destroy,” he wrote.
Father Ponce Akennone, the parish priest of Saint Jean-Baptiste, has attempted to calm the situation by re-painting the statue, adding that in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was necessary to put the “unnecessary polemic” to rest.
“In the current context of a pandemic, I felt that there was better to do than to put the parish in the heart of a controversy which is not necessary,” said the priest. “That’s why I have changed the controversial color.”
Akennone said he believes that “the racist interpretation made is only opportunism based on neutral considerations but that some orient in the direction that suits them.”
However, Father Maurice Hounmènou, a theologian and specialist in liturgy, notes that controversies over Christian statues isn’t something new, even if he finds it unjustified in the light of the history of Christian art.
“We must make a distinction between the symbolic interpretations of ancient Christian art and the ideological constructions that made black the present expression of demons or fallen angels,” he said.
“We must get out of any racial stigma or ideological manipulation when it comes to evoking the symbolism of Christian art in its historical purity,” he said.
“The African can only emerge from the abyss of his colonial history by rediscovering the coherence of his inner being,” Hounmenou added.
Father Maxime Ahomagnon, a specialist in Church social teaching, said Africa’s problem isn’t a problem of color.
“The universal character of the Church transcends questions of color,” he said. “The identity issue today carries the religious fact on the baptismal faces of ideologies that call for discernment.”
Professor Jérôme Alladayé, a religious historian told La Croix “the problem that arises is not a question of skin color, but rather of cultural identity, that is to say, for its development, the African must be alienated or find in itself the positive values of its regeneration.”