(after Renée Cox’s “Yo Mama’s Last Supper”)
Renée Cox’s “Yo Mama’s Last Supper” is a full-color five panel photographic installation that features twelve men at a banquet table with the artist herself standing, nude, in the center, a white shawl draped over her outstretched arms, as if giving blessing. When the piece toured in New York City, it was met with fury by then-mayor Rudy Giuliani. He said that it was “outrageous”, that it was “disgusting and anti-Catholic,” that it was a gross misrepresentation of the original. Cox’s initial reply to the mayor was, “Get over it. I don’t produce work that necessarily looks good over someone’s couch.”
At a friend’s BBQ in a sunny Oakland backyard, I struck up conversation with an acquaintance’s 12 year-old daughter. She told me that she’d made the decision to play a nerd in high school and become a lawyer because she’s “not pretty enough to do other things.” I wanted to ask her, “pretty enough for what?” but was so stunned by the frankness of her self-determined position in the societal pecking order that I let her continue on with the grocery list of imperatives for her guaranteed life success. Finally, after sharing the colleges she would attend (Berkeley and Columbia), where she would live (Manhattan), and what kind of law she would practice (Environmental), I told her that I thought she was pretty. Her response: “Thanks, but my nose is too flat.” I asked, “What do you think pretty is?” Without hesitating she said, “Taylor Swift.”
I was walking along Merrimon Avenue in downtown Asheville with Pauline, my McGuffey’s Family Restaurant co-worker and favorite smoke-break companion, when I waved across the street upon sight of my neighbor. Pauline gasped, “you know Jesus Guy?!” I laughed, “Mikey?” She looked at me with incredulity. “Come on. Long blondish hair, always in those sandals, kinda pretty? We call him Jesus Guy!” I shrugged. What I wanted to do was scoff, to summon my liberal arts rationale, to argue that Jesus certainly wasn’t a shaggy-blonde-haired, blue-eyed white guy. But decided against it because, shamefully, I realized I had often thought the same thing about Mikey, too.
When A and I broke up, laying in our bed in a tucked away bedroom of a tucked away part of Highland Park, Los Angeles, I was certain that it was not the end. I was certain. I knew what love looked like—human beings made songs, films, books, a catalog of culture on the matter—and our love fit the look: the serendipity, the wordless knowing, the close-cropped laughter. It was every third act in an atmospheric indy-film romance. So I waited for A to come to his senses. And waited. Stared at a ceiling fan for a week’s worth of hours with the waiting. And a month later, thousands of revolutions, and 25 pounds less, my certainty devolved into obsession, and my last words to him before he closed me out for good were lyrical incantations from highly recognizable and beloved love songs.
For his retelling of The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson dedicated himself and his 30 million-dollar budget to fastidious accuracy. He measured his film scenes in the approximate real-time of Jesus’ last hours. He consulted with Biblical experts for exact textile replications in costume, only filmed actors eating produce that would have been harvested during that era. He even had the script translated into Aramaic, Jesus’ native tongue, a language long since diminished, and spoken by only the smallest pocket of people in a far corner of the Middle East. And then, curiously, he cast Jim Caviezel as the title character. Irish and Slovak, blue-eyed Caviezel. And despite historical knowledge that it was uncustomary for men to wear their hair long in Judea at the time, Caviezel’s Jesus sported luxurious shoulder-length tresses worthy of a Pantene Pro-V commercial.
René Magritte’s “The Treachery of Images” hangs in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It is a painting of a pipe with the words ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ below, translated as ‘This is not a pipe.’ Concerning the painting, Magritte said, “The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So, if I had written on my picture ‘This is a pipe’, I’d have been lying!” Was this painting more warning than wax? Did Réne clutch the Old Testament—particularly the book of Exodus, particularly the 2nd commandment—in his hand while holding his paintbrush in the other?
I look through all the pictures taken while A and I were together. We are laughing, all teeth and crow’s feet. We are pressing our foreheads together, sharing a wordless knowing. We are akimbo in the thrill of our mutuality. There are no pictures of our disagreements, no record of the six-month slog into dissolution. Only a sequence of what was gleaming and sweet, along with the cooing comments of our 3,000 closest friends and acquaintances below. These are the documents of our history. For a while, a selection of them—the most convincing depictions of our love—were framed and hung over the couch.
When Giuliani accuses Cox’s photographs to be a misrepresentation of the original, what is he referring to? The final dinner shared by Jesus’ apostles? Wouldn’t that have been a gathering of poor and shabby men eating a meager meal of bread and wine? We must all wonder what it really looked like. Unfortunately, there were no cameras in those days, no selfie sticks, no drones flying overhead. Our imagination is how we paint the moment. That is the beauty of our minds. But what happens when we don’t use our imaginations at all?
When you see a lie over and over again, you begin to believe it is true.
What image comes to mind when you think of the last supper? More than likely, it is Da Vinci’s legendary mural housed in the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, in Milan. DaVinci used Italian models and the current Renaissance fashions as source for his depiction more than he did history. He used the beauty of his mind. Doesn’t the artist have the right to depict the subjects of their work in any way they choose?
I am writing this essay. I am representing mine and A’s relationship through the parallel device of “Yo Mama’s Last Supper.” Is my rendering accurate to history? Not really. Is that possible? Not exactly. Does it matter? Perhaps. We want to be the finger pointing to God, but we also want to make God herself, particularly a version that would glean the most likes. Which fails more? Da Vinci’s “Last Supper”? Cox’s “Yo Mama’s Last Supper”? Gibson’s film? Is this even the question to be asking? Perhaps that is what all art is: to figure out why we do it, in spite of itself.
What we can reason is that the last supper wasn’t a bunch of long-haired Mikey-looking white men feasting at a lavish banquet table wearing crimson robes that swept the ground. What we can reason is that representation is always a lie. What we can recognize is the liberty of our imaginations. And yet, when Giuliani accuses Cox of her gross misrepresentation of the original, he in fact is referencing—as his original—a gross misrepresentation of the original.
Ceci n’est pas Jésus.
Taylor Swift currently appears on more magazine covers than any other celebrity. Her nose is thin, barely a sliver of flesh in such an eggshell face—breakable, hollowed, white.
Ceci n’est pas un beauté.
When you see a lie over and over again, you begin to believe it is true.
I listen to a lot of highly recognized and beloved love songs. I watch a lot of packaged serendipity, close-cropped laughter, in my Netflix feed of independent coming-of-age gay romances. I see a lot of images made with cameras, drones, selfie-sticks, on two-dimensional screens. I see it again and again and again. Perhaps it is time for me to watch something else.
Perhaps it is time for us all to tell new lies.
Miah Jeffra is author of four books, most recently The Violence Almanac (finalist for several awards, including the Grace Paley and St. Lawrence Book Prizes) and the forthcoming novel American Gospel. Work can be seen in StoryQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, The North American Review, Barrelhouse, DIAGRAM, jubilat and many others. Miah is co-founder of Whiting Award-winning queer and trans literary collaborative, Foglifter Press, and teaches writing and decolonial studies at Santa Clara University and Sonoma State University.