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Kenyan Artist Paints “New Eve” and “New Adam” to Retell Africa’s Story of Hope, Beauty

Fridah Ijai, a Kenyan realism artist, describes painting in which she brings out the difference between the Even of the Old Testament and Mary, the Mother of Jesus who she describes as the 'New Eve'. The President of the Jesuits Conference of Africa and Madagascar, Fr. Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator looks on. Credit: ACI Africa

In one of Fridah Ijai’s paintings, a young black woman is surrounded by green vegetation and a succulent flower bud of a banana plant. The woman’s attention is fixed on her palms that tenderly hold a cracked egg shell. Through the shell runs a breaking rope, which also cuts through the entire painting. A dove is perched on the upper part of the rope, which seems shinier than the lower part.

Ijai refers to the woman in the painting as the “New Eve” or the Virgin Mary who has brought hope to humanity, correcting the mistakes of the Old Testament Eve who ate the forbidden fruit.

“The cracked egg signifies the new beginning through the birth of Jesus Christ. The rope is also divided into two parts; the old and the new and where the rope breaks signifies the beginning of new life that Mother Mary brings to the world,” the Kenyan student tells ACI Africa.

She adds, “The woman is black and she is surrounded with green vegetation to signify the African continent’s richness. The banana in the photo is a common plant in Africa. I was trying to bring out Eve in an environment that we are all familiar with and at the same time be the garden of Eden, which I believe is Africa.”

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To the 25-year-old Kenyan student pursuing Pure Fine Art, the New Eve should be black to help tell Africa’s story.

This is the story that the leadership of the Jesuit Conference of Africa and Madagascar (JCAM) sought to amplify when they brought the Kenyan Realism Artist on board to do the painting. 

Speaking to ACI Africa on the sidelines of the Friday, June 11 event of the unveiling of commissioned paintings at the Jesuits’ Africama House in Nairobi, JCAM President, Fr. Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator, noted that working with the young Kenyan artist was the Jesuits' way of impacting the lives of the youth.

The Jesuits are guided by four “Universal Apostolic Preferences” that include reaching out to young people. They are Showing the Way to God, Walking with the Excluded, Journeying with the Youth, and Caring for Our Common Home.

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“By collaborating with Frida, we are expressing our commitment to the youth,” Fr. Orobator told ACI Africa, and explained that he first interacted with the artist’s work in a local daily.

“I first read about Frida in a local newspaper and I shared his story with other Jesuits. We contacted her in October last year and have been journeying with her to date,” the JCAM President said.

The Priest underscored the importance of art in evangelization and made reference to St. Paul’s letter to Ephesians 2:10 that has it, “For we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

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“We are God's work of art. This means that God is the ultimate artist. In fact, God is referred to as the Artist in Chief in many African societies,” Fr. Orobator said, and added, “God creates with patience and love and He invests Himself in what he is creating. We are celebrating today what we are called to do; to be co-creators with God. To imitate him and to present a world colored with God's grace.” 

He said that the Jesuits’ engagement with Ijai has been lengthy, with the artist presenting sketches and receiving corrections from the Priests until the grand unveiling on June 11.

The two other paintings that were commissioned at the Jesuits’ Africama House in Nairobi were the “New Adam” and the “African Child.” The two pieces are also inspired by the creation story.

Ijai refers to the New Adam painting as “Who do you think I am?”

“My idea was to create an African Adam in the garden of Eden (Africa) who in turn reincarnates as Jesus in the New Testament,” the artist says, and adds, “In this painting, I’ve brought in the aspect of Jesus in the water since Jesus is the water of life.”

The “Adam” painting has been interpreted differently, with some likening the man in the photo who is presented alongside a dove and water to John the Baptist. Still, others see a Rastafarian religion/culture and the dreadlocks in this case being a symbol of the lion of Judah.

“Everyone has their own opinion and I love when people can think through and enjoy my paintings. That’s why I named the painting ‘Who Do You Think I Am,’” she says.

Fr. John Baptist Anyeh, a Jesuit Priest who was present at the unveiling ceremony looked at the “New Adam” as the hope for humanity which he said was plunged in deep turmoil with the disobedience of the first parents.

“The old Adam didn't have the capacity to pull humanity out of suffering but the new Adam, Jesus, has power to save humanity,” Fr. John Baptist said.

The final depiction of a vibrant Africa Child is aimed at telling Africa’s beauty and correcting deep held beliefs that Africa is a land of suffering, Ijai tells ACI Africa.

The painting depicts two children separated by a wire mesh. One of the children who wears a broad smile is painted in bright African colours and is surrounded by green vegetation. The other one is painted in black and white.

“I paint the child in white and black to represent what should be Africa’s past. There has always been the assumption that Africa is in pain and suffering. I have seen images of African children in dirty clothes, crying. This is our past. We want to portray Africa as a beautiful continent and happy continent,” Ijai says.