National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  May 2, 2003

South Africa’s rural poor inspire work of Belgian priest-artist

Catholic News Service
Potchefstroom, South Africa

A Belgian priest and artist who has worked in South Africa since 1966 said the country’s rural poor have inspired his work.

Fr. Wilfried Joye
-- CNS photos

“I am very much attracted to rural life,” said Oblate Fr. Wilfried Joye, 63, an expressionist painter whose large oils depict religious themes and daily life in South Africa’s townships and countryside.

“I love to paint the farm people of South Africa. By nature they are very religious and very good people.” He said they are community-oriented and willing to “share what they have.”

He paints what he sees -- marriages, funerals, men drinking, men working in the fields, women working in a home, a mother nursing her baby, a young domestic worker resting. His characters bear his trademarks: big hands, big faces and big feet. Characters in his paintings wear clothes in solid, bright colors, while contemporary black Africans favor prints and patterns.

“The large hands and feet represent my Flemish, expressionistic heritage,” he said.

Many of Joye’s religious themes are portrayed in icons. “Mother and child scenes are very attractive to me because if you live in Africa that’s a lot of what you see,” he said.

“Each time I paint, I hang myself on the wall,” he said. “To me, an icon is painted theology. As you grow as a person, painting becomes an expression of your soul.”

Joye’s icons have oval heads, small mouths, and open, rounded eyes.

“Small mouths show an attitude of being overwhelmed by the reality of truth,” he said. “Big, open eyes are an expression of a seeing person, somebody who lives in the truth and understands the truth,” he said. “Eyes are very important to me because they show an atmosphere of silence, wonder and mystery. That’s how I feel reality is.”

Joye sells his paintings to supplement his $300 monthly priest’s salary. His paintings have helped him purchase a car and support parish programs. Sales helped construct St. Luke’s Church in Goedgavonde and an extension to Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Promasa, which ministers to South Africans of mixed races.

Joye said painting refreshes and challenges his philosophical side.

“Very often we are strangers to ourselves and strangers to our bodies. We must get in touch with ourselves. We must live in the moment and be aware of the moment. We must remember that we’re connected to all life sources,” he said.

A woman with outstretched hands. A viewer might assume it to be Mary, but the priest leaves his images open to interpretation by not naming his paintings. Icons show the world is "full of much wonder," he said.
A South African mother and child.

Joye’s paintings are on display in institutions throughout the country, including Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education, a state university, and Good Shepherd Center in Pretoria, a Catholic-run ecumenical retreat center. His paintings interpreting the 15 traditional mysteries of the rosary hang in the basilica in Dadizele, Belgium.

Born in Flanders, Belgium, Joye grew up among working-class people. His father worked in a paper factory. After ordination, he came to South Africa as a missionary.

During the early 1990s in South Africa, a time of much social unrest and political upheaval, Joye stood in solidarity with other priests against apartheid, the country’s system of strict racial segregation.

“You have to be with your people,” he said.

National Catholic Reporter, May 2, 2003

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