SALT LAKE CITY — The old adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” holds great meaning for Melissa Tshikamba. As an artist, Tshikamba speaks through her paintings — and there’s a lot she hopes to say.
Growing up a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Alberta, Canada, Tshikamba remembers feeling a disconnect between what she was taught, both at home and at church, and what she saw depicted in the images accompanying those teachings. In the paintings and pictures hanging in the church buildings she attended or shown to her during Sunday School classes, Tshikamba did not see herself represented.
“I think we need depictions of all ethnicities because most of the people in the world are people of color.” — Melissa Tshikamba
“I think for a worldwide religion, we need to be better at reflecting the world in our art,” she said. “I think we need depictions of all ethnicities because most of the people in the world are people of color.”
As a Black woman, Tshikamba said she has rarely felt a connection to the religious art used to represent her faith throughout her life and, because of that, her own work is now largely focused on creating images that better represent the global population of the church.
“I was never able to see myself in art growing up, so it’s empowering to see an image like me. It shocks my soul. Art can make you feel God’s love, so it’s important to see yourself within it,” she said.
Although painting people and figures was not something she initially felt she excelled at, over time Tshikamba became drawn to the idea of highlighting people of color in her art.
“I’m drawn to people’s faces. You can see their soul. I love people and I am better at painting what I know,” she said. “It’s my outlet and it’s the way I know how to express my feelings, and I guess changing the narrative with my art is my goal.”
As a recent graduate from the Brigham Young University’s illustration program, Tshikamba is already recognizing success as a working artist. With a growing Instagram and website following, she is finding an audience hungry for the work she has to offer.
“Making ethnic art the norm is one of my goals,” she said. “I want to uplift women, and especially Black women.”
As the youngest of eight children in her family, Tshikamba said she has often felt like the “odd man out.” Not only is she the only artist in her family, but she has also always recognized the advantages granted to her by her lighter skin.
The misconceptions about lighter and darker skin color are prevalent within communities of color, Tshikamba explained, noting that skin bleaching continues to be a popular practice, even though people know it is harmful.
Even within faith communities, there are a lot of misconceptions about what it means to be created in the image of God, she said. Many people seem to believe that because God is depicted as though he is European, then only Europeans are alike unto God.
“People say the most ignorant things. And kids are so trusting. As a kid I interpreted almost every image literally,” she said. “But we’re supposed to love ourselves, so I’m trying to reset people’s minds so that they know they are loved and beautiful despite having darker skin.”
Tshikamba said she remembers being taught that dark skin was a curse, a teaching that she internalized as a child. It wasn’t until some of those similar teachings were reiterated during her time at BYU that she came to realize the harm that those misguided teachings can have on a person’s identity.
Recalling another instance from childhood, Tshikamba said, “My brother was told that when you go to heaven you’ll turn white. I grew up believing that and I revered white people more than myself. I noticed that I had internalized racism as well because of how I was taught.”
During her time at BYU, a large painting went up in the Museum of Art that depicted the “whitest heaven I’ve ever seen,” Tshikamba said. Images like that, she continued, reinforce those ideas that whiteness is better.
Through learning more about the history of Blacks in the church and how they have and haven’t been represented and included throughout the Restoration, Tshikamba said she became more aware of the hurt experienced by other members of color.
“When you don’t acknowledge the past, or try to ignore it, it can cause people to have misgivings.” Tshikamba said, noting that some of her own family members have left the church over the treatment or misunderstandings they have experienced.
“I know so many people who have more prominent experiences than I do,” she said. “I know I was treated better, but for me, I am such a visual learner, and it was the lack of images and representation that got to me.”
Although she recognized the underrepresentation of Black people in religious art long before she began her art degree at BYU, Tshikamba said her time at the university was like a “wake-up call” for how much power those singular images had in shaping the narrative for people of color.
“I realized there is racism everywhere. And once you see it, it’s like you can’t unsee it,” she said.
Although her overall experience in her program and at BYU was a positive one, Tshikamba said she also often felt disappointed by a lack of understanding and empathy. Oftentimes, she would try to bring up the hurt she had experienced or point out the lack of representation afforded to people of color and would immediately be shut down, both by friends and sometimes leaders.
“I had these people who I thought were friends, but they would look at me like I was crazy,” she said. “I was often hit with the response that ‘it doesn’t matter.’ Those apathetic responses totally scarred me. … It’s hard to bring it up for those that haven’t experienced it.”
Recent events and the current political climate are helping to change that though, Tshikamba said. “It’s made people who were not aware have to make a choice.”
For Tshikamba, her work is all about loving her neighbors by making sure they know they are made in God’s image.
“We all have little missions throughout our lives and I feel like I’m supposed to uplift people through art,” she said. “Art has strengthened me and made me see better. I can visualize God as I see myself. It has built my testimony because it’s made me realize who I am — I feel like I’m being more true to myself.”
Her hope is that her art will help equalize representation. It’s her own way of bringing these issues to people’s attention and helping to normalize religious art featuring people of color.
With most of her work featuring Black figures, often decorated or highlighted with gold, Tshikamba said she is working to dispel the negative associations of Blackness.
“I’m trying to change that narrative and have Black be seen as a positive thing,” she said. And the gold helps emphasize that on each of the figures she paints.
“I often use halos to represent their divinity and their light,” she said.
And on a personal level, painting portraits of Black figures, especially in religious contexts has helped Tshikamba feel closer to God herself.
“It’s made me feel comfortable with who I am and it’s made me proud to be who I am and not try to fit into society’s standards. It’s made me find that spiritual side. I’m being kinder to myself and I understand who I am and am accepting of that.”
God wants his children to see the divinity within themselves, Tshikamba said.
“We’re all like gods and goddesses having a human experience, and if we can see the divine in ourselves, if we can correct those past traumas and help each other see that we are divine, we are naturally closer to God,” she said. “When we see God in ourselves, we see ourselves as divine beings.”