For many Christians, icons are windows to God. They make the Ultimate accessible through divinely-inspired human artistry. Worldly subjects–almost exclusively holy people and their environments–draw readers outward and upward, beyond what is present, towards what is Holy.
Artist Gabriel Garcia Roman’s icons of queer and trans* people of color achieve similar ends for me, employing real people alive today to draw me into greater worship of God. His “Queer Icons” have another purpose too, which is to raise the profiles of these leaders so that young people can gain a sense of hope and security.
The “Queer Icons” closely mirror traditional iconography in their appearance, mixing a range of artistic influences, such as 15th century Dutch artist Jan Van Eycke and contemporary South African photographer Zanele Muholi. In a news article on The Huffington Post, Garcia Roman explained:
” ‘The subjects in “Queer Icons” are people of color, who maintain separate, individual identities within the queer community…These explorations of the edges of genders take place in the nuances of the contemporary urban world. A simple eye shape, an angle of a mouth, the tilt of the head — indicate a queering of conventional forms and roles … Much like traditional religious paintings conferred a sense of safety, calm and meditation into a home, the works in this series aspire to a similar sense of refuge, drawn from the inner grace of the subjects out onto a world that might not always be safe.’ “
The subjects are Garcia Roman’s friends and acquaintances, all united by a trait found in every icon: a halo. His art is strongly reflective of his Mexican Catholic upbringing. Garcia Roman was inundated with devotional imagery filled with halos, which “combined suffering and strength on the dark walls of his church.” An NPR story further offered his thoughts on his background:
” ‘Because I grew up Catholic in a Mexican community in Chicago, my first introduction to art was religious art…I’ve always thought of the halo as something very powerful — it’s like a badge of nobility,” he says.
“And because Roman’s subjects are activists and artists who do good for the community, ‘I wanted to represent them as saints,” he says.”
Yet, Garcia Roman’s saints are not passive, as he told a reporter from Mic:
” ‘Saints are usually depicted as martyrs, noble and selfless individuals working for the betterment of the world, but also I wanted to portray them as fearless warriors. They are looking right at you and challenging you.’ “
Mesmerizing is an apt description of the “Queer Icons,” which you can find more of on Garcia Roman’s Tumblr and Instagram (@gbrlgrcrmn) accounts. Photographs, silkscreens, and the handwritten words of spoken word artists and writers combine on his canvases with ample color and intrigue to stir the viewer to contemplate what they are seeing.
You’re invited to spend time prayerfully “reading” the icons below to see what Garcia Roman’s artistry and the lives of those depicted say to you. Perhaps, like me, these icons will be a window for you to worship the God who made all people wonderfully in both the divine image and in a wide diversity we can always learn to respect, cherish, and delight in more and more.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry