Painting the Mother of Exiles

by Rev . Dr. Angela Yarber

Last month, my column focused on the importance of intersectionality within the LGBTQ movement by highlighting the revolutionary work of Sojourner Truth, an escaped slave, abolitionist, and women’s rights activist.

I’d like to continue to press the importance of intersectionality, particularly given our current political state.

Of late, I’ve received a little criticism that some of my recent Holy Women Icons are too political, particularly with reference to Mothers of Black Lives Matter, Dolores Huerta, and the Midwives of Standing Rock. As a woman artist, and particularly a queer woman artist, the personal is always political. Feminists taught us this decades ago.

Since the lives, loves, and bodies of LGBTQs, women, refugees, immigrants, people of color, Muslims, Jews, those who are differently abled, and the poor continue to be legislated, violated, excluded, and oppressed, I’d contend that writing about, painting about, and working for liberation for all of these intersectional identities is paramount, especially for those who profess faith in a homeless refugee liberator from the Middle East (that would be Jesus, of course).

Needless to say, I believe these recent works in the Holy Women Icons Project fit in quite nicely with the over seventy revolutionaries—political and otherwise—that I’ve painted and written about in the past.

These critiques combined with the current climate of the United States, new legislation passed, proposed, and promised that attacks the lives of the aforementioned marginalized groups.

So, I took to canvas and, for the first time, I did not pen the poetry scrawled across the holy woman’s heart.

Instead, I relied on the words of Jewish American poet, Emma Lazarus (1849-1877). Most famous for the portion of her sonnet, “The New Colossus,” that graces the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, I wanted Lady Liberty and Lazarus’s timely words to become my newest Holy Woman Icon.

In its entirety, “The New Colossus” reads:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Emboldened by these words, I wanted to paint the Mother of Exiles, offering a world-wide welcome to immigrants and refugees, honoring the native women of color who had their land stolen to create this country and African women stolen from their homes and enslaved in order to build this country, remembering that many shades of skin make up America, and recalling the Jewish heritage of the poet.

This intersectional welcome is ever so important as anti-Semitism is on the rise and more and more Jews are threatened in the places they consider most sacred. So, too, are our Muslim neighbors.

As I researched and painted Mother of Exiles, I could not help but reflect on the way Christianity has been coopted as a so-called civil religion of the United States.

Both the country and the Christian tradition have lofty ideals, commendable, perhaps even revolutionary: welcome the poor and refugees, stand up for the oppressed, offer radical hospitality, work for equality. But the histories of both the country and Christianity have rarely lived up to these ideals.

Instead we have a history of mass killings, from Wounded Knee to the Crusades. It is a history of the subjugation of women and the demonization of queers. It is a history of slavery, often rationalized with scripture. It is a history of exclusion, internment camps, ghettos, and the crucifixions of many who do not fit the status quo. It is a sordid, violent, ugly history.

And we are continuing to live it.

If the LGBTQ community does not lift our beacon-hand and offer a world-wide welcome to those yearning to breathe free, who will? For those of us within the LGBTQ community who are cis, white, and able-bodied, we have others to remember, to welcome. As a response to our current administration and the xenophobic, racist, sexist, and homophobic legislation they have passed, proposed, and promised, I have painted Mother of Exiles as a charge, a call, a rallying cry to those of us who are yearning to breathe free.

We are the huddled masses, and we must expand our embrace. 

Inspired, emboldened, and galvanized by this Mother of Exiles, I implore you. Lift your beacon-hands, beloveds, for you are mightier than you think.

Artwork by Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber