You have to be an artist to know how I felt as I proudly announced to Mohammad and his brothers and their families that I had completed a portrait of their father.
The family stood politely around the painting, expressing their surprise at my gift. But I noticed a reserve that I hadn’t expected as they studied the scene I had created around their father. Something was missing in their response, but I couldn’t determine what it was.
Later that day, when we were alone, I asked Mohammad if the gift was appropriate, if it was well received. He expressed deep appreciation. But he hesitated, as if not wanting to hurt my feelings.
I remember the first time Mohammad invited me to his home. Everything about the morning was rural Arab. I met his father, a shepherd. I learned Mohammad had six older brothers, all married. We sat down to a mid-morning spread fresh from their family garden, livestock, and kitchen: cheese, cream, tomatoes, cucumbers, olive, omelets, fresh bread, and fig jam. We enjoyed a lively conversation that last far beyond the time it usually takes me to eat breakfast.
That’s how a friendship with Mohammad was born. We ate breakfast together almost every day for the month I was in his country. In my free time, I sketched portraits of him, of each of his brothers, of several young nieces and nephews. I realized the mothers were delighted to receive what I considered simple drawings of their children.
Perhaps that’s why, toward the end of our time together that summer, I decided to paint a formal portrait of Mohammad’s father, the patriarch of them all. I had grown to respect him; his quiet manner and hardworking ways endeared him to me and I wanted to honor him. Before I left, I sketched him and studied their living room for a setting where I might pose him in the portrait. I returned home with my project in mind.
Over the next few months I developed a painting of the elderly man. I posed him dressed in his formal, traditional clothing and sitting in the family’s living room. After thoughtfully considering a special message I wanted to express, I painted in a simple porcelain teapot and one tea cup on a small table between the elderly man and the viewer. My special reason for including only one teacup was because I had experienced his hospitality in a singular way so many times; he would serve his guest but not provide for his own comfort or refreshment.
I was proud of the painting as a special expression of my appreciation and the honor of being included so warmly into their family.
So, I pressed Mohammad privately after watching his family’s polite response to my gift. What did they think of the painting? Was it appropriate?
“It was so nice. We are greatly honored.” He was picking his words carefully. I decided to listen longer.
“I think the modern teapot is not of my father’s world. We have traditional Arab coffee pots that are very meaningful to us.” He was not comfortable sharing his critique. My artist eyes suddenly pictured the incongruence of the little porcelain teapot and its matching teacup. I apologized profusely and assured him I could correct the painting.
Within a few days, I brought out my paints and inquired for a traditional coffee pot. Within the hour he’d picked up an elegant antique pot from a cousin nearby. It wasn’t what they used; it was what they valued.
In a few strokes of the brush, the modern teapot and the single dainty cup disappeared into the canvas. In its place I shaped the old coffeepot and two traditional teacups, to make sure a guest was welcome into the painting’s story. For Mohammad had a further suggestion: “We must always have two cups, for a guest is always welcome.”
One more time the family gathered and I humbly brought out the corrected painting. This time the surprise and excitement was replaced by relief and great appreciation. The painting was ceremoniously hung next to one of the only other decorations in the home—a verse from the Qur'an etched in white plaster.
It was one of my first and clearest “lessons” in contextualizing. As I paint, I have learned to ask myself that difficult, self-inspecting question: Am I faithful to the assumptions and expectations of my host country, their culture, the way they see life? Am I careful to use the visual vocabulary they use, and the pictures that best express their world?
When so much of culture is visual, those details can serve as a catalyst for saying, “I see what you see, I notice what is meaningful to you.” That is the kind of expression that builds long-term relationships for the glory of God. To this day, the ongoing relationship I enjoy with Mohammad and his family is filled with many discussions about faith, wonderful seasons of prayer together.
The painting still hangs alongside the verse from the Qur’an. And I am till praying that God will lead him, his six brothers and their families, and his parents to a saving relationship with our Savior. --BM