In 1995 Australian artist and film maker George Gittoes was in Rwanda, documenting the work of UN peace keeping forces. This coincided with the one year anniversary of the horrendous civil war which had left over a million people dead. Inspired by revenge, local Rwandan soldiers began to attack the crowds who had gathered hoping for the protection of the UN forces. Many thousands lost their lives that day and Gittoes worked tirelessly alongside the 24 medical personnel to save lives and treat the injured. He also took photographs of the perpetrators which were later used at a war crimes tribunal.
Amongst the frightened crowd he came across a man in a yellow coat who was reading words from the Bible out loud:
This afternoon … I came into a group who were calm. Though bursts of machine gun fire surrounded them—continually getting closer with terrifying inevitability—they remained a solid congregation—bound together not by walls, but by prayer. A solitary preacher read to them from a ragged bible. He spoke in French with a thick dialect—his voice hoarse and broken—but I could recognize the Sermon on the Mount. ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God’. [Matthew 5:8] (Sydney Morning Herald 1995: 14)
The figure in Gittoes’s painting directly addresses the eyes of the viewer. His gesture has the appearance of an appeal to be witnessed and remembered. The work makes reference to other works that have focused on history’s victims, such as Francisco Goya’s Third of May 1808, and countless depictions of Christ who—in the face of betrayal and violence—responded with compassion.
This preacher is a Christ figure. He testifies in a dire situation. He asks us to witness the power of love in the face of a hatred based on racial difference.
Gittoes said at the time: ‘[t]he Preacher, represents what I think religion should be, raise people up, make people feel human and spiritually alive and give them courage and faith. When I returned home I was carrying this terrible imagery in my head. I have a wife and two children. I didn’t want to go straight into the studio and start painting dead children. The one powerful positive image I had was the preacher. I could see him in his yellow coat and I could feel his courage’ (Sydney Morning Herald 1995: 14).
1995. ‘Preacher takes Prize, 15th December 1995’, Sydney Morning Herald, p.14
23 Now before faith came, we were confined under the law, kept under restraint until faith should be revealed. 24So that the law was our custodian until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith. 25But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian; 26for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.
4 I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no better than a slave, though he is the owner of all the estate; 2but he is under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father. 3So with us; when we were children, we were slaves to the elemental spirits of the universe. 4But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 5to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. 6And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” 7So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir.