One chromosome too many

There are lots of modern versions of the Last Supper out there. Shown above is my favorite, in part because of a personal connection I have with it. Photographed by Raoef Mamedov, this sequence of 5 images portrays Jesus and his 12 disciples as “sufferers” from Down syndrome.

Raoef_Mamedov-The_Last_Supper_Down_Syndrome_Full_Small -- Click for large version
“The Last Supper” is an occasionally notorious Rorschach test for artists and critics alike. One author invented an entire plot around his interpretation of a single, albeit extraordinarily famous, depiction of the event. Mamedov’s “Last Supper” patterns the poses of his men after da Vinici, which makes his work disarmingly familiar even as it is strikingly different. What I see in the images probably says more about me than about his photos, but here’s my take:

In the center as always is Jesus, alone, in a moment of calm reflection. Or perhaps he is drifting into a nap, a possibility that seems borderline offensive. Each cluster of 3 disciples occupies its own large photo, so you can view it as a stand-alone image. Seen all at once (something I had the unexpected opportunity to do once in a church in Utrecht), the effect is nearly overwhelming — startling at first and then magnetically captivating.
I see a series of photos that are funny and brilliant, which seem to border on the exploitative and unfair (Did the actors understand what they were doing? Did they know how their genetic differences were being used by the artist?). As always when confronted by images of human anomalies, I also feel the dual pull of revulsion and captivation.

The figures strike me as awkward, but the blessing of Down syndrome is that the people who have it seem blissfully unaware of this awkwardness. It’s those of us with normal chromosomes, with longer lifespans and square shoulders, who are prone to obsess about our physical peculiarities or the ways in which we are social misfits. Perhaps it’s hard to look at people who by our calculations should be suffering, then realize we are the ones suffering. This leads me to consider the possibility that Mamedov is the true outlier, the weirdo who just wants to pass for normal, to live his life without being gawked at.

So why not? Why should it seem so strange to see the apostles portrayed like this? Clearly it does seem odd at first, and that is troubling. I have no real answer for why this matters or why it’s troubling or why the photos are so hard to look at or so compelling. And that, perhaps, is even more troubling. I keep wanting to see these photos as a cheap shot or black humor or a mistake. But dignity requires that we see the actors as they are: fully human, yet decidedly different. So why can’t we just do that?

Posted in Art

48 thoughts on “One chromosome too many

  1. Border on the exploitive? It’s full on exploitation! He’s using them to make some point. He treats them like little kids to dress up and pose. Makes my stomach turn just looking at it!

  2. I agree with Falco this is straight up abusive. They don’t know what their doing, just look at their expressions. Its a cheap shot anyway.

  3. I disagree, at first look I saw another cheap shot, using religion and possible handicaps to get undue recognition. But after thinking about it, I think its a beautiful work of art.
    Those of us that are taught manners at a young age, are taught not to stare, expecially at those things not perfect and beautiful (per social norms). But if you see a different flower, or bug…dont you go over and take a good look.
    The apostles were not perfect left brainers. They did share a commen binding thread as do these actors.
    I think the actors were probably thrilled to be in this work of art, maybe the highlight of their life. They did a amazing job, and I would be willing to bet on the fact that they all know who Jesus is. —joyce

  4. is a shame reading a moral so called ” let’s defend the right of down syndrome people” placing a judgement… ” because is hard for me to believe a real concrete compromise, only again the taboo before anything.
    how many model knew the artist intention by default ? how many complains for the role of fat people, black? woman? old ? in terms of artistic exposure? was nan golding exploding addicts ?
    i just feel the taboo underlines the perceptions, a naturalised taboo by our culture, that make us all see disable people as “repulsive yet attractive ” , the worst thing is that u know what? there are thousands out there, millions of “repulsive yet attractive ones ” . only society DOES NOT WANT TO SEE THEM, not in the public eye, not you, not me… please! please! hide them from my view… i don’t want them, not in the gardens, not in the schools, not dancing, not having fun, not dribbeling in our birthdays parties… we are just too cool to have them, they are depressing, much more than my fabulous life, ohhh please LET’S NOT SEE THEM, not even in art space
    hope one day images become familiar, so these guys stop being “shocking” just because they exists. then i guess we could talk about this in “art terms” or the “ethic aspects” but so far, it sounds as a bunch of Victorian old ladies shocked by seeing a breast…
    * by the way i am a beautiful not repulsive, yet special disabled girl! all we have to do, is avoid “narrow mind categories ” accept the fact that there are lots of different people out there, much more than we can ever imagine.
    for the moment i thank ART if it gives space, is much better than you or me if we never will have ones those different creatures in our table, just eating an apple.
    and i will gladly change views and eat apples with Victorian old ladies, i’ve never implied i don’t have one of those inside of me… i just try to seduce her so she opens her mind a little
    also hope Freud thesis gets popular, and that un.heimlich becomes heimlich

  5. Hey, it’s a bunch of mongloids portraying the last supper!
    There had to have been at least a few mentally challenged people around back then for the concept of religion to generate traction.
    I want to see a last supper made up of gay smurfs. White hats, blue skin, and randy tendencies. Do it now.

  6. I could not disagree more with Falco and Ph. Williams. The assumption they’re making – that these people could not possibly have any idea what’s going on; that they were just wrangled, dressed up, and placed in these positions – belies their belief that people with Down’s are just idiots.
    Because what you two are feeling here is Pity, which is, perhaps, the most insulting of feelings. It’s the assumption that they’re too stupid to know what’s happening, and therefore they *must* be being taken advantage of. That’s truly insulting.
    Oddly enough, I’m quickly reminded of Josh “The Ponceman” Perry, star of the YouTube series “Retarded Policeman.” One episode can be found here:
    Because of the assumption that many people had in episodes of Retarded Policeman, that he must be being taken advantage of, lots of people raised the same stink that Falco and Ph. Williams making, seemingly on his “behalf.” So, he made this video:
    Ph. Williams says, “They don’t know what their [sic] doing, just look at their expressions.”
    Really? How could you possibly know that? Is it because you just assume that all people with Down’s Syndrome are incoherent? Are they inherently unable to make decisions for themselves and think things through?
    Furthermore, I’d say there are some pretty strong expressions in that photograph, particularly in the last two frames. Or do you two just not believe that their little retarded brains couldn’t possibly register any real facial emotions?
    So, and I imagine this happens a lot, in the name of “protecting” them, you two have effectively pushed them back into their retard-corner. To paraphrase The Ponceman: They may have Down’s Syndrome, but you two are fucking retarded.

  7. i support what the artist has done. by posing these men as the western God and his disciples, he has made them beautiful in my eyes.
    He has given a group a people who are shunned by society dignity. What could be more Christian?

  8. As a fellow photographer this is quite a good piece. The illustration of imagination is each pose is constantly leading the eye to explore and ponder. The only thing I don’t like is that he stuck so closely to the period art style and lightened the areas directly around their heads to give each member a sort of halo that I find distracting. Otherwise, I can’t imagine a place this wouldn’t be a form of great installation art.

  9. Hello…
    The point that I’d like to make… is that the Downs Syndrome people I’ve
    met are some of the happiest, most loving souls I’ve met. I don’t think
    I’ve met one of them who isn’t happy. To be in the Presence of a Manifestation of God,I am sure would be one of joy, hope and happiness.
    This art is not for me.
    ” Praise be to Thee, O God, for Thy Manifestation of Love to Mankind”.

  10. Take a look at the photo closely. It’s sort of a stab at religion. The glasses on the table – Jesus couldn’t see shit. And his followers are just as clueless as he is.
    Some of their faces in complete surprise and wonder at what they are a part of, yet not really understanding that they are following someone just as stupid and clueless as they. Doing everything they are told without thought of consequence. Just like the artist intended us to do as we stir the piss pot with anger, pride, pity and the shit of emotions, but all we are doing is playing into the “holier than thou” stereotype that people are so well known for being.
    The real art isn’t in the manipulation of the subjects, the light and camera, it’s the manipulation of the viewers.

  11. truth-
    Saturday 2 days after posting my view on this work, I saw a grown man with downs, sitting on a bench, in the sun, outside Walmart- he was sleeping with his head on his chest, he was wearing a big wide silver cross around his neck, (dh saw him too).
    Later that same day, at mass the priest (old school catholic priest from Ireland)- spoke about the apostles. Saying they were the bottom of the barrel of society, 11 dirty fishermen and one hazy tax man. They picked up and left their homes, wives and children. (“Gods ways are not our ways”), he has said this many many times.
    Also this is over the top, and maybe off topic- but I’m posting it anyway- Our priest has been trying to get everyone to know this prayer and say it at the end of mass, so far after 6 months everyone can still only read it, not say it by heart.. Its a very old prayer
    Holy Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle: be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil; may God rebuke him, we humbly pray and do you, O Prince of the heavenly host, by the Divine power thrust into hell Satan and all the evil spirits who wander through the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen
    ps robotz, i am not holier than anyone, i just am-joyce

  12. A strikingly, beautiful photograph; the second panel from the left looks like a Caravaggio. Its difficult to imagine that some of the posts here are serious, so lets assume their authors were American. People with Down’s Syndrome are cognitively delayed to one degree or another, they’re not Mattell action figures who can just be parked in a pose. And as for the use of the tag ‘retard’, well, people in glass houses and all that…

  13. What everyone on this less than enlightened debate seems to miss is that this is a beautiful bit of artwork. If the actors are happy to take part and enjoy the result then how does disability – in itself a subjective term – matter? Well done to all involved and thanks for putting it online.

  14. I am a gay man who struggled with shame for a long, long time. One day I saw a play about gay men that moved me deeply and gave me pride and courage. I never thought I would “hear my voice’ in a play. All of you who condemn this image: are you disabled? Do you know what it is, to be disabled? Perhaps this image will bring pride to people “outside” the norm. People with Down’s make their own decisions; they do not follow orders. They are us too, and they can speak for themselves. The fact that they participated in this work says that they wanted to do so. Who is anyone to criticize their decision to create artwork? Who is anyone to exclude people with Down’s from making art for that is what you do when you condemn this work.

  15. As a person who is proud to count people with mental retardation among my friends I have to say that depending on how you look at this pieces it can move you to anger (if you think that the artist is making the too easy and too shallow comment that religious people are in some way cognitively delayed) or to joy (when you think that the people who posed know they are making art, know the story of Jesus, and took direction to make something lovely).
    As with all good art, it is open to interpretation. It makes people think. It makes people discuss.
    Personally, I think that the statement is that we are all more alike than different. That people who are marginalized by society, can be the closest to God, even if society chooses not to see them.

  16. This is one of the most beautiful series of photographs I have ever seen. The lighting, subject and models are truly breathtaking. It is a masterpiece.

  17. Saying they don’t know what they are doing and that it’s abuse are all ignorant comments, basically you’re trying to tell us that down syndrome people are worthless and don’t know about anything going on? IGNORANT.
    Fabulous piece btw.

  18. Brilliant concept. The subject talent were well aware of the radical purpose of this
    superbly crafted work. To suggest anything else is crass ‘silent fart’ Calvinist conservatism, reminiscent of the worst of the bleatings of John Knox’s Elizabethan Presbytery.
    – Theo Bennett

  19. I find the study moving. It did not disturb me in the least as I simply looked at it as an artistic re-interpretation of an original artistic interpretation of a mythical event.
    Frankly the result for me was a kind of peaceful contemplation of the way the subjects were arranged and displayed. I was particularly touched by the anachronistic glasses on the table, in front of the central character’s hand.
    I like it.

  20. Surely the defining characteristic of art (and photography) is to show us different ways of looking at the world. That it does so here and provokes such diverse reaction is a reinforcement of this picture’s power as art.
    As for the imagined exploitation of Down Syndrome individuals: in my observation “sufferers” of Down Syndrome invariably participate in creative endeavours with a sense of joy that is not often seen in more “normal” individuals. Discrimination against them because they do not conform to society’s current template of beauty is selfish, shallow and downright cruel.
    Raoef Mamedov has managed to create a great photograph here, while at the same time provoking all those who can only respond to chocolate box imagery to think about the real world in ways that transcend sentimental pictures of flowers and puppies, or even last suppers.

  21. The fact that this photo has gotten such thorough and elaborate comments shows that it is a success. Art should spur discussion and thought. It should not merely decorate. So love it or hate it, it affected you. That’s great.

  22. Falco and PH. Williams are pigs.
    Falco says “He treats them like little kids to dress up and pose.”
    How is this different from any other actor or model? Falco is a condescending bigot.
    Ph. Williams Says:
    “They don’t know what their doing, just look at their expressions.” Ph. Williams is possibly worse that Falco. Why attribute naivety or stupidity to the models based on your own biases?

  23. I think it’s wonderful…I wasn’t offended by it at all…Society loves to group people of different races, nationalities and genders for the sole reason of discrimination. I don’t see this happening here at all. We have no proof that any of the disciples weren’t either physically or mentally handicapped and I think the artist depicts the purest form of humanity here.
    We are all created different yet equal in God’s eyes. This photograph is no more discriminating than any other Last Supper painting or photo I’ve ever seen. If you want to criticize the artist here, then you must apply the same criticism to every artist that’s ever created the Last Supper for depicting 13 Caucasian men in their previous works.

  24. just let it be. everyone has their own opinion when it comes to art and religion. those that buy into most religions have the same mental capacity as the subjects that make up the piece. if they, the participants, didn’t know what was being done or why they were dressed, certainly, their care takers did and i’m sure signed off on it. of course, that’s just and opinion/guess.
    just see it for what it is. if you don’t agree hit stumble, which is how i found it.
    as for the piece itself, it says something so its good art.

  25. Like all good art this interesting piece exposes ourselves to ourselves. Brilliant and useful if you happen to be paying attention.

  26. Hey hey, el titulo me parece bastante apropiado, es la unica diferencia que hay entre una persona con sindrome de down y una que no lo tiene.
    Por favor permitanme iluminarlos con mi amplio conocimiento acerca del sindrome down en forma simple:
    Son personas como tu y como yo que tienen un cromosoma de mas por alguna de las siguientes 2 razones:
    1.- Herencia: una persona puede ser portadora en sus genes de esta información sin tener sindrome de down.
    2.- Azar: es una probabilidad de 20,000 a 1 (en México) todo se reduce al pequeño instante que dura la fecundación cuando el papa y la mama aportan 23 cromosomas cada uno y hay una falla y en vez de resultar 46 son 47; no hay nada que provoque esto, por supuesto que influye si tines mas de 35 sube la probabilidad, pero existen padres de todas edades que tienen niños down, ni asuntos ambientales, medicamentos, exposicion a x sustancia, solo pasa.
    Para confirmar el sindrome de down aparte de ciertos rasgos fisicos y padecimientos es necesario hacer una prueba llamada Cariotipo y una vez obtenido el resultado se clasifica en 3 tipos: 1.Hereditario, que todas las celulas tienen esa información de 47 cromosomas y que se debe estudiar a los padres con la misma prueba para ver quien es el portador ya que en este caso hay muchas probabilidades de que si tienen mas hijos tambien tengan sindrome de down solo que depende de quien es el portador, si es la madre es mas alta la probabilidad.
    2. Regular, en este caso fue por azar y dependiendo de la edad de la madre son las probabilidades, por ejemplo madres menores de 30 tienen un 3% despues de tener un hijo con sindrome down regular de tener 2 con sindrome regular.
    3. Mosaico, en este caso no todas sus celulas presentan esa infomación de 47 cromosomas, tambien tienen celulas con 46 asi que solo se limita a ciertos rasgos pero su desarrollo es completamente como el de cualquiera de nosotros los “normales”.
    No son personas tontas, al contrario son muy inteligentes y tienen mucho que enseñarnos, ellos no son superficiales, le dan mas valor a lo realmente importante como la familia, momentos especiales, ayudan a otras personas por que para ellos no hay diferencias, son muy cariñosos y les da igual si tienen lo ultimo en gadgets o no, total eso no es indispensable para vivir.
    Si conocen a alguna persona con sindrome de down no tengan miedo ni tengan lastima por ellos y lo mas importante es que no son personas enfermas, no contagian mas que alegria, ellos son muy capaces de aprender de todo solo hay que tener paciencia, pero ustedes se sorprenderan.
    Tengo 23 años, mi esposo 25 y tenemos una nena con sindrome de down regular, nadie en nuestro arbol genealigico tiene parientes down. Ella es muy inteligente, su salud es excelente, no necesita operaciones ni terapias y en comparacion con cualquier otro niño lleva 6 meses atras en la cronologia de desarrollo, tiene una increible flexibilidad y mucha facilidad para la musica.
    La fotografia de la ultima cena no me ofende como madre down y tampoco pienso que hayan explotado a los modelos, estoy segura de que ellos sabian que es arte y que estaban haciendo, si no chequen estas pinturas de chicos down mexicanos :

  27. As a mother of a child with Down’s syndrome I thought that this work was beautiful.This is not the first time that people with Down’s syndrome have been used in art.In the Metropolitan museum in NY there is a painting from the 1600’s where the angels are depicted as having down’s syndrome.To me this photograph asks who are the followers of Jesus?Are people with a disablity capable of the same experiences as others?It raises some brilliant questions.

  28. The thing with this portrait is that it is both insightful and “exploitative.” It does exploit the actors in that the artist chose them specifically because of their down syndrome, and utilizes and manipulates them for his purpose and to prove his point. However, his point is to analyze and provoke discussion on our differences, social norms and, yes, most likely religion.
    Yet, as it seems so far, it is impossible to see it as both, and so people are torn between love and hate. It creates a dual attack, where, to quote some, it is “beautiful,” “contemplative,” and “moving,” yet also “cheap,” to quote another. But fellas, fellas, you’re both right. It creates such a tension that we, generally, as people tend to look at things as either/or, this or that, a yin and yang kind of scenario. We tend not to see it as is.
    And for my last quote, from Ellos Gallo:
    “The fact that this photo has gotten such thorough and elaborate comments shows that it is a success. Art should spur discussion and thought. It should not merely decorate. So love it or hate it, it affected you. That’s great.”
    The fact that it has provoked such discussion, means that it has accomplished its point.

  29. Hello,
    I am an artist and teach at NSCAD University. I also have a child with DS. the Last Supper is not offensive in the least – not to me or any of my students with DS. Your comments and conclusions are also not offensive- but only because they demonstrate your total ignorance on the subject. You have never known anyone with DS, or spoken with them, so why would you assume so much? Perhaps you should do some research, instead of relying on your backwards thinking.

  30. It doesn’t really matter who the models are. This is very interesting. Obviously very controversial but so is the original painting. What’s on my site is 10xs more controversial I’m surprised they didn’t have a girl pose for the “John’s” spot!

  31. I think this is a great piece. Each cluster of apostles have a unique emotion going on. I see this time is the point of the supper when Jesus tells the 12 that one of them will betray him. The men in the far left panel suggest the apostles saying no this can’t be. How can this be true? the next panel the apostles are ready to fight. Notice the knife in the hand of one, the another seems to be squeezing the bread in his hand. The apostles to the right of Jesus are in confused and saddened about Jesus’ comments, except the one that seems to be saying it’s not me. Judas I suppose. The last panel seem to be discussing the reality of what Jesus is saying. Who could it be? Why would they do this?
    I like this piece. My grandson has DS. I think this is a cool representation of the last supper and it would allow those with DS to relate to all the characters in their own right.

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