Photographs turning ordinary people into holy monuments

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Xavier Scott Marshall’s photographs evoke a sense of delicate balance. In his frames tensions arise between life and mortality, between light and dark – both thematically and compositionally. The New York-born and based photographer often incorporates symbolic imagery into his work, allowing viewers to see reflections of themselves. “There are many symbols that we carry with us throughout our daily lives that remind us of setting, place and time,” Xavier explained in a recent interview. “I find it interesting to use different symbolisms to almost trick people’s minds into visiting a certain place.”

Xavier employs these elements in his latest series entitled The seventh day, which investigates the complex relationship between religiosity and darkness through a lens that is both personal and universal. Xavier is interested in how we as black people in the African Diaspora navigate our connection to Christianity, while acknowledging the difficult origins of how it was presented to our ancestors. How can we reconcile our relationship to a religion that has served as a tool of manipulation as much as of liberation?

SAINT CATHERINE, 2022

This collection of ten striking portraits was commissioned as part of Faces of Harlem, a public art exhibit that opened over the weekend in Morningside Park. Founded by a Harlem-based photographer and community organizer Sade Boyewa El in 2021, Faces of Harlem is also a nonprofit collective that provides accessible, cross-generational opportunities for communities of color to participate in cultural experiences that reflect their needs and desires.

“As people of color, it’s important for us to see ourselves in a positive light, but also for new transplant communities to see us,” said El, who has resided in Harlem for more than 25 years. She added, “Harlem is and always will be known as the dark mecca of the world. Let’s not forget that.

A woman holding a swaddled baby in a living room seated behind a glass table.

MADONNA AND CHILD ENTRONED, 2022

For The seventh day, Marshall staged ten Harlemites as various saints and Christian icons in their homes. The resulting hand-processed black and white photographs reframe ordinary people as sacred figures, worthy of praise in their own right. By reclaiming images popularized by renowned Renaissance painters, Xavier seeks to “undo the violence of inherited visual colonialist propaganda in America and beyond.” Each taking on a theatrical character, Xavier’s subjects are depicted perched on sofas, resting in their bedroom or in the hallway of a building. Some people are surrounded by religious figurines, while others are dressed to reflect the saint they represent.

A man wearing hoodies and sneakers in front of the American flag holding a noose.

SAINT ANTONY OF PADUA, 2022

The title of the series refers to Xavier’s own experience as a first-generation Trinidadian-American growing up in a family of devout Seventh-day Adventist Christians. “I grew up a Christian,” shares the photographer. “This work that I have been doing for a few years, with all the religious symbolism, is my way of exploring and better understanding my own relationship with Christianity and religion in general.”

The artist’s decision to photograph his subjects in domestic settings is part of a broader shift in the theme of this year’s exhibition, which focuses on showing individuals in their homes rather than on the streets of Harlem. “We really wanted to move from the streets to the indoors,” El said, referring to the ongoing impact of the pandemic. “We aim to capture and rebuild those connections that we have lost over the past two years.”

A man wearing Timberland boots and a Pelle Pelle jacket sitting on a chest of drawers holding a knife.

SAINT MICHAEL (ARCHANGEL), 2022

A centerpiece of the series, entitled “SAINT MICHAEL (ARCHANGEL)”, shows a man seated on the edge of a large dresser, his hands facing upwards and resting on his knees. His left hand is empty, while his right hand balances a small dagger, drawing parallels with historical depictions of Saint Michael, who is usually depicted holding a knife or sword. With his feet suspended above the ground, he floats, becoming an angelic figure. Beneath her feet rests a set of dumbbells, which Xavier says are meant to “represent the weight and violence of the darkness felt in our communities, as well as the delicate balance between prosperous living and tragic death in the lives of Black”.

‘PIETÀ’, a new staging of Michelangelo’s famous sculpture of the same name, is the only image in the series that features two subjects. It shows Jesus lying on his mother Mary’s lap after the crucifixion. Xavier’s interpretation, however, departs from the classic work by centering a non-binary individual as the figure of the wounded Jesus. Dressed in a crown of thorns and flowing white robes, the two figures represent a time and place clearly differentiated from that of Michelangelo’s sculpture.

A woman holding another person on her lap sitting on a bed with a painting in the background.

PIETA, 2022

Xavier’s photographs challenge norms regarding who and what is considered sacred. In a powerful essay accompanying the series, he recounts how his upbringing conditioned him to see signs of God all around him and to “seek the divinity of everyday life.”

“We exist on both physical and divine planes,” he writes. “Religiosity coincides with many aspects of blackness, regardless of our spiritual practices; it informs our daily life.

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A woman wearing a white scarf and flowers sitting on a bed.

SAINTE-CHRISTINE, 2022

A man wearing a hat standing in a hallway.

SAINT PETER THE MARTYR, 2022

A man seated on a bed holding a large cross.

SAINT JEROME, 2022

A man in a hoodie sitting on a chair holding a noose.

SAINT BERNADINO, 2022

A man in jeans sitting on a bed holding two arrows.

SAINT SEBASTIAN, 2022

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Credits


All images are courtesy of the artist.

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