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Ashe to Amen: African Americans and Biblical Imagery

February 15 - May 26, 2013


The far reaching and highly diverse spectrums of African American life as presented though works by five generations of artists was on view in Ashe to Amen: African Americans and Biblical Imagery at the Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA) from February 15, 2013 to May 26, 2013 in New York City. (right: Clementine Hunter, Baby Jesus and the Three Wise Men, 1960, Acrylic on board, 17 x 25 inches. Courtesy American Folk Art Museum, New York)

Alternately impassioned, sardonic, ecstatic, and coolly ironic, the nearly 60 works on view present layer upon layer of deeply felt emotions regarding the Biblical traditions that many enslaved Africans encountered for the first time in the United States. Yet surprisingly often to some, the adopted Christian teachings were and remained for generations grounded in beliefs native to West and Central Africa, the original homes of hundreds of thousands of Africans who were brought to North America in bondage.

The exhibition's title includes terms commonly used in African and African American communities: amen and ashe (or ase in a variant spelling), a word from the Yoruba (Nigeria) language. Ashe (pronounced AH-shay) is a crucial dynamic of the "inner eye" of the creativity of an artist, or the power to make something happen. It is also, like the word "amen," an affirmation -- essentially, "so be it." The words are widely used in various parts of the African diaspora.

The works in Ashe to Amen ranged widely in terms of style and vision and date from the late 19th century to 2012, with half of the nearly 50 artists still active at the time of the exhibition. Academically rendered images from the turn of the 20th century by Henry Ossawa Tanner are hung just yards away from Harlem Renaissance / New Negro Movement artist Palmer Hayden's biting cartoon-like 1930 The Dove of God. In a Works Progress Administration-inflected midnight vigil scene by Charles "Spinky" Alston, relatives of a deceased man entreat God for the safe passage of the man's soul. Dozens of contemporary works address questions and affirmations of faith, morality, and, in a neon work by Renée Stout, possible future directions of religion in today's society.

Seminal works include Romare Bearden's early photomontage Prevalence of Ritual: Conjur Woman (1964), which references the powerful role of healers in communities not served by doctors trained in Western medicine. The Word War I veteran and self-taught Horace Pippin's The Holy Mountain III (1945) references Isaiah's peaceable kingdom prophecy of the leopard lying down with the goat while spectral figures in a dark background suggest the grim fighting in the European Theater during World War II and, alternatively, the cloaked stirrings that precede a beating or lynching. Joyce J. Scott's Inkisi: St. John the Conqueror (2009) presents a talismanic figure of a trickster folk spirit believed to come to the aid of slaves.

Ashe to Amen presents art that contemplates and comments on the thoughts, rituals, and practices found in Western religious traditions as refracted through the eyes and experiences of artists who for decades lived and worked outside mainstream American traditions, both societal and religious. In addition to oil-on-canvas paintings, the exhibition includes photography, beads, mosaics made of shards of glass, a limestone street curb chiseled into a sculpture, fabric, metallic ribbon, video, and the top of a paint can. (left: Renée Stout, Church of the Crossroads, 1999-2000, Neon and wood; 52 x 37 x 3 inches. Courtesy of the Artist and Hemphill Arts)

"There is no uniform or monolithic African American art," said exhibition curator Leslie King-Hammond, Ph.D., Graduate Dean Emerita/Founding Director, Center for Race and Culture at the Maryland Institute College of Art. "This exhibition is about the artistic and spiritual process of discovery, revelation, and expressive interpretation of very personal, intimate relationships that each artist evokes as a response to their own experience as channeled through the sacred text of the Bible. The works in the exhibition find common ground in representing visions of life and philosophical beliefs that emerged from a distinctive American culture that has developed and evolved over centuries and are now a unique addition to the broader field of American art."

Ashe to Amen: African Americans and Biblical Imagery was organized by MOBIA and scheduled to travel to the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture in Baltimore, Maryland (June - September 2013) and to the Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis, Tennessee (October 2013 - January 2014).


Exhibition Highlights

The 1935 Preacher, by William Edmondson (1874 (?) - 1951), is a nearly two-foot-tall limestone sculpture by an artist who began to work as a sculptor when in his 50s and was the first African American artist to receive a one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1937. His creations were designed initially as grave makers or headstones for the members of his community.

World War I veteran and self-taught artist Horace Pippin (1888 - 1946) is represented in From Ashe to Amen by The Holy Mountain III. The painting shows leopards and lions in a peaceable kingdom setting, a subject employed by artists for centuries that recalls Isaiah's prophecy of the lion lying down with the lamb. Pippin often addressed slavery and segregation in his work, and spectral figures cloaked in the darkness of woods in the background add an ominous element to the otherwise bucolic painting. Pippen died the year after the painting was completed.

Church of the Crossroads, a neon installation by Renée Stout references the neon signs found on the facades of storefront churches. Church of the Crossroads is part of Stout's ongoing works that look at how people of African descent have created new meanings from intersections of Biblical texts and American and African belief systems.

Mixed-media contemporary works include the 2009 Inkisi: St. John the Conqueror, by Joyce J. Scott. Inkisi incorporates a recycled glass bottle that symbolizes vessels for sacred elements or the resting place for spirits in African and African American cultures and is an exploration of the intersection of Christian and African belief systems. John the Conqueror, also known as High John the Conqueror, is an African American folk hero. He is associated with the John the Conquer root, or John the Conqueroo, to which magical powers are ascribed. Inkisi refers to both the tributary river of the Congo River located in Western Central Africa and to nkisi, wooden sculptures made in the Congo that take on meaning through the accumulation of materials added to them over time. Invoking John the Conqueror and the Inkisi River, Scott links the vastness of the river with the specificity of a folk hero to create a particular yet epic resonance.

In Bible and Drum, Chester Higgins, Jr. (b. 1946) evokes traditional African music and dance and their relationship to the Bible in a scene captured in a church located in Bronx, New York.

Self-taught artist Clementine Hunter began to paint in the 1940s. Over the course of her prolific career, she is said to have created more than 4,000 works. Hunter took as her inspiration life on and around Melrose Plantation, south of Natchitoches, Louisiana, where she worked as well as lived in the African American community along the Cane River. Known for her genre scenes, Hunter also painted a considerable number of devotional scenes like Baby Jesus and Three Wise Men.


(above: Joyce J. Scott, Inkisi: St. John the Conqueror, 2009, Collected glass bottles, glass beads, wire, thread, coral., 18 1/2 x 24 1/2 x 18 1/2 inches. Courtesy of Goya Contemporary)


(above: Chester Higgins, Jr., Bible and Drum, 1989, Digital photographic print, 14 x 17 inches. Courtesy of the Artist)


Exhibition Publication

The accompanying publication, Ashe to Amen: African Americans and Biblical Imagery, was edited by Dr. King-Hammond and published by MOBIA. In addition to Dr. King-Hammond, contributors include Debra Ambush, Ph.D., National Association of Art Educators and chair of the National Art Education Association affiliate, Committee on Multiethnic Concerns; Tritobia Benjamin, Ph.D., associate dean of the Division of Fine Arts, College of Arts and Sciences and professor of art history, Howard University, Washington, DC; Aiden Faust, M.L.S., Digital Collections Librarian, Langsdale Library, University of Baltimore; Baltimore, MD; Fayth M. Parks, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Counselor Education and Ethnopsychologist, Georgia Southern University, Statesboro, GA; Lowery Stokes Sims, Ph.D., Curator, Museum of Arts and Design, New York, NY; and Vincent L. Wimbush, Ph.D., Director, Institute for Signifying Scripture, Claremont Graduate University, Claremont, CA, "The Bible as Language-World."



Lenders to the exhibition include American Folk Art Museum, New York, NY; Bryn Mawr College collections, Bryn Mawr, PA; Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, OH; Hampton University Museum, Hampton, VA; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC; The Harmon and Harriet Kelley Foundation for the Arts, San Antonio, TX; Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY; Museum of American Folk Art, New York, NY; the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC; National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; Savannah College of Art and Design, Savannah, GA; Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library, New York, NY; Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Washington, DC; University of Tennessee; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY; and a number of artists and their gallery representatives and private collectors.


Editor's note: Resource Library readers may also enjoy:

For further biographical information on selected artists cited in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

Read more articles, essays and information concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Museum of Biblical Art in Resource Library.

Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

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