"Figuring Faith: Images of Belief in Africa arose from an exhibition of the same name at the Standard Bank Gallery in 2006, curated by Fiona Rankin-Smith. The book documents and extends the exhibition, bringing together the debates and discussions on faith and art that the exhibition gave rise to, and shedding light on the ways in which art interprets, exemplifies and challenges belief and ritual."
William Kentridge, in his introduction to the exhibition, sets up a distinction between the rationality of the Enlightenment and the irrationality of religion. He claims that the exhibition was a "rational examination of the irrational" and that the gallery in which it was held is itself a "rational space." This view, which based on a simplistic and highly questionable juxtaposition, is unfortunate as an introduction to an exhibition and book which is significantly more nuanced in its understanding and discussion of faith.
What Kentridge fails to acknowledge in his introduction is the extent to which the rationality of the Enlightenment is based on unverifiable assumptions making it as much a matter of faith as religion and the extent to which art itself functions as a de facto religion for many of those who practice and follow it. Colin Richards addresses both factors in 'Seeing, Believing and the Dead,' the first essay in the book. Richards notes that "enlightenment always suggests something toxic" and criticises the "histrionic" nature of secular fundamentalism. He quotes Christopher Hitchens to make that point that art is used as a substitute for religion by reasonable sceptics who find the "lure of wonder and mystery and awe" in "music and art and literature."
Kentridge is insightful however when he quotes Czelaw Milosz's poem 'On Prayer' (which he suggests parallels "what it is we do when we either make or contemplate a work of art") and applies Plato's term metaxu to the exhibition:
"Plato's term metaxu describes that which separates and connects, an ironic or oxymoronic, contradictory position. It makes me think of the wall between two prisoners that separates them, but that also makes communication possible through knocking. Or a window that separates you from the view outside, but also frames the view and makes you aware of what you are looking at. Metaxu also refers to an "in-between state", between being separated and connected, between a quotidian, every day reality and the world of mystery and transcendence beyond. Figuring Faith shows us that we are incurably en route between the quotidian and the other. We are able to understand the works in the exhibition because we see the journey they represent and understand that journey within ourselves. We understand that the safe place is within that journey. The terror is the terror of arriving. Because once it is arrived at, mystery disappears and in its place comes authority, the final word, the last book, the law which must be obeyed, and all the punishments that follow. The works in Figuring Faith embody the state of metaxu, and the very activity of making the work involves the artist in a journey of going from what is known to what is glimpsed at, half understood and tentatively approached with the work."
Jonathan Butler - I Stand On Your Word.