Sunday, 3 July 2016

The Last Cannibal Supper … ‘Cause tomorrow we become Christians

I know I should spend this post giving My Perspective on Australia’s latest round of political instability.  I’m won’t.  I’m utterly sick of elections and politics and I imagine everyone else is too.  I’d like to tell you about something I saw the other day at the National Gallery that rather struck me.

Image from here

In the Gallery’s section on Pacific art was a backlit photograph (above) by a New Zealand artist called Greg Semu titled The Last Cannibal Supper … ‘Cause tomorrow we become Christians.  The picture has deep rich colours, and the staging is a plain reference to Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper.  The setup alone is gripping.  The fleshy bodies of the participants are silently challenged by the mutilated body on the table.  Their liveliness is heightened by the memento mori of the skull staring at something over the viewer’s shoulder.  The vegetation looks neither alive nor dead.  It just is.

Última Cena - Da Vinci 5.jpg
Image from here

My immediate reaction was to find the picture distasteful.  Maybe even blasphemous.  It’s stuck with me.  More and more I find it worthy of respect.  Christianity was sometimes accused of cannibalism in its earlier days.  A very literal reading was put on Jesus’ command at the actual Last Supper:
Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body. And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.
Catholics (and, I believe, Lutherans and High Anglicans) accept the teaching of the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist – body, blood, soul and Divinity.  This is why I find Mr Semu’s photograph so heard to dismiss.  By absorbing and being absorbed by other human beings, was cannibalism (usually considered unspeakably barbaric) reaching for something Divine?  Jesus on the Cross drew upon something very ancient in humanity: the destruction of one body so that others might thrive.  This is why I can’t dismiss this photograph.  It’s not a simple undergraduate sneer at missionary Christianity displacing the ways of the Noble Savage.  It’s asking whether the New World and Old share something fundamental which neither suspects.

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