God Wants His People by Trevor Makhoba

Trevor Makhoba

God Wants His People, c.2001, Linoleum cut, 418 x 302 mm, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1110.2007.14, © Courtesy of Mrs. G. Makhoba © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY

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‘God Wants His People’

Commentary by

This image is clearly theological. Both the linocut phrase ‘It gives sufficeint [sic] time for repentance’ and the artist’s title (in pencil at the bottom) ‘God wants his people’ declare a theological theme. What is not as clear is the reference to Job 40 and 41, until one remembers that isiZulu and isiXhosa Bible translations of these chapters translate Behemoth as ‘hippopotamus’ and Leviathan as ‘crocodile’.

Here Trevor Makhoba conjures a combined hippopotamus/crocodile beast, with millenarian nostrils (shaped from the number 2000) and tombstone teeth. The mouth of this great beast gapes at us. The attentive viewer is forced to take a step back, such is the power and threat of this open jaw. This image draws on the implied threat of the biblical Behemoth and Leviathan towards humans (Job 41:25, 34), and the clear incapacity of humans to control either (40:24; 41:1–8, 26–29). Indeed, this work invokes the sense in the biblical text of God’s tenuous control of these most mighty of God’s creatures: ‘He is the first of the ways of God; let his maker bring near his sword’ (Job 40:19 own translation).

In the context of a rampant HIV pandemic in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, Makhoba’s homeland, the question that haunts Makhoba’s image is: ‘Is God for or against this terrifying beast?’ The night’s sky and the stars allude, perhaps, to the beginning of Job’s lament (Job 3), where he imagines creation undone. In his anguish Job reverses the order of creation: ‘May the day be darkness’ (3:4). The stars and the white arrows in the right-hand panel portend redemption from the ‘black gloom’ (3:5). But the black arrows point to certain destruction for those drawn into the monstrous mouth. As with Leviathan, ‘Around its teeth there is terror’ (41:14). However, the words of Scripture, though not from the book of Job, offer words of hope: ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’ (2 Corinthians 12:9). ‘God wants his people’, provided they repent. Only then are we safe from Behemoth–Leviathan.