While visiting a friend’s home in Utah this past summer, I noticed on the bookshelf a complete set of the Illustrated Stories from the Book of Mormon, a 16-volume production, geared toward families with kids, published by Promised Land Publications in 1967. I pulled a volume off the shelf and began flipping through. It was great! If I didn’t know any better, though, I might have been a bit confused by the array of colorful pictures that confronted me. Was this a history of the ancient americas or a modern U.S. History textbook? It seemed a strange hybrid of both. Pictures of Nephites and Lamanites and Mesoamerican temples were interspersed with pictures of the Statue of Liberty, Columbus, the signers of the Declaration of Independence, the transcontinental railroad, and the American West!
One page, consisting of two illustrations, grabbed my particular attention. The caption attending the images–what they are supposed to illustrate–is taken from 2 Nephi 26:19, which reads: “Then those who have dwindled in unbelief [the descendants of the Lamanites] shall be smitten by the hand of the Gentiles.” The caption is sandwiched between two images. On top is a depiction of mounted Spanish conquistadors with drawn swords charging toward two unarmed, darker-skinnned cowering figures in headdresses and (what the illustrator imagines to be) some sort of Aztecian garb. Below that is an image that carries us forward a few hundred years and a bit north in our story of conquest. The setting looks like something from the American West–Arizona or southern Utah. A cowboy is foregrounded, presumably a sheriff (though we can’t see his star, since he is facing away from the viewer). His hand is on his gun at his hip and his gaze is off toward the horizon where, receding from view, a Pueblo Indian family fades into the distance. In the foreground, just to the right of the cowboy’s gun sling, is a wooden sign posted to a barbed wire fence, which reads: “U.S. GOVERNMENT INDIAN RESERVATION KEEP OUT“
Since I have sort of been working on a paper on how the Book of Mormon has been imagined and displayed in Mormon visual culture, I was excited to get back to the BYU library (spent most of the past summer in Utah) and get a scan of the image. Rather then look it up on the catalogue, I went right to the section of the HBLL where the Book of Mormon editions are. Rather than the 1967 edition I expected to find, however, I found a much newer and flashier edition published in 2002 by Heritage Media. I began flipping through and found the image I was looking for–but I would hesitate to call it the same image. The colors were a bit muted, the dimesions of the image shrunk, and the caption had been moved to the bottom of the page. But what really stuck out at me–or didn’t stick out at me–was the sign. The wording on the sign was gone, as though it had been air-brused or sand-blasted (or photo-shopped) away!
But if the words are gone, the image is still there, and the message, if not clear, is stark. If, as some have suggested, the Book of Mormon can indeed be read as a postcolonial narrative, these Book of Mormon illustrators–and these publishers of Book of Mormon illustrations–haven’t gotten the message….
So to end with a few questions that might, hopefully, generate some discussion: Do we have a postcolonial Mormon visual culture? Is it possible? And, if so, what would it look like?