"Saints" is a series by photographer Barron Claiborne that consists of 40+ images of Africans taking on the positions of saints and holy women and men.
The meaning of the series is unclear, though I doubt it’s meant as a swipe at Christianity, since it uses Christian imagery in as dignified a manner as it does African imagery. The combination of common Christian and African cultural elements—I will not comment on the accuracy of the African elements, since I am no expert on the nuances of the numerous African cultures—invents a proud, independent, purely African Christian history. In actuality, proud, independent, purely African Christianity exists—the Kingdom of Axum (Ethiopia) and the centuries of large Christian presence in North Africa, both of which still persist today in the vibrant culture of Ethiopia and, though it is the shadow of North African Christianity, the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt. Ethiopian Orthodoxy is clearly reflected in many of the images in the series, most visibly in the numerous Ethiopian-style crosses.
However, I say the series invents a proud, independent, purely African Christian history because most Christianities in Africa are descendants of European missionary work. During parts of the colonial era, many African churches (I won’t say most or all because my knowledge is a little fuzzy in this area) were led by Europeans, and unfortunately, African cultures were marginalized by Europeans who were leading African Christianity. African Christians were not seen in as dignified a manner as Claiborne’s images depict.
So I maintain that Claiborne’s “Saints” is meant to right what was wrong with African Christianity for so long—it elevates Africans to the same level as the European (and earlier Middle Eastern) saints. The series is so beautiful that I feel discontent that I can only choose 10 of the images. The whole series just seems so perfect to me.
Luckily, after colonialism, African Christians have tried—and are succeeding—in practicing Christianity in their own way, in conjunction with their own cultures.