People with white faces

There’s a guy who stands on the corner of Piazza Statuto and plays a saxophone.

Huw Williams | 17:12, Sunday, 04 December 2011

He’s really not bad at all. As his phrases resound around the portici it’s always a pleasure to listen as you approach, pass and leave him behind again.

The other day we passed a more unusual busker on Via Roma – she was tap-dancing. Now I don’t know much about dance but I would have guessed she was pretty good at it. There was certainly something very infectious about her energetic enthusiasm.

Call it artists’ solidarity, but I always feel a great sense of sympathy for buskers. When I hear the good ones, I’m often reminded how someone with an equivalent level of accomplishment in law or business management rarely needs to stand out on freezing street corners to earn a few extra Euros. But such is many an artist’s fate.

People with White FacesBut there’s another kind of performer (I use the word loosely) that you will encounter around the centre of Torino. They are people with white faces. Painted white. And they usually wear all-white clothes, too. I believe the idea is that they are to stand in statuesque postures for prolonged periods of time; at least if they did that we might marvel at their ability to do so, but in my experience they seem to spend more of their time ambling around and expecting payment for… well, painting their faces white.

On an unseasonably warm day a couple of weeks ago, Ali and I sat outside a cafe enjoying a quick focaccia for lunch, when we were accosted by one such individual whose sole talent was (apart from painting her face white) the ability to make a popping noise with her mouth, such as one used to make with one’s thumb as a child. Now call me a snob, but I don’t quite feel the same level of sympathy with a mouth-popping-white-painted-face lady standing over our table, rather aggressively holding an open palm, and refusing to either go away or stop the singularly unimpressive display of popping noises (albeit without the use of a thumb). It’s just not that clear why she expected to be paid. Some rather cool Charlie Parker saxophone licks are one thing, but I just don’t appreciate the slightly scary painted-white-face thing (with or without mouth-popping), or why it is so payment worthy. There’s a culture here I’m just not tuned into. I’m sure the rationale is perfectly clear to them, but it just doesn’t make any sense to me, or even any of the Torinese I’ve spoken with.

Two reflections. As a Welshman in an international church, I wonder how many of my cultural conventions do I take as read and understood, and go flying over the heads of others? It’s a question which has been in the minds of missiologists and cross-cultural workers for some time now - how we perceive ourselves and how we are perceived can have wider gaps across cultures. What makes perfect sense to me can leave others confused and nonplussed.

But doesn’t that go for all of us as disciples of Jesus? How many of our church conventions such as dress, speech, manner and liturgy make perfect sense to those who are in-the-know, but leave those who are not, confused? How much of the tradition and culture of our church life which makes us so comfortable, leaves those who have never heard of the love of Jesus, feeling as confused as if we had painted our faces white, donned a white top hat, and expected a response?

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