Book Review: Painting the Gospel: Black Public Art and Religion in Chicago by Kymberly N. Pinder

Members of the majority white culture may not realize it, but white Jesus is a fraught symbol. According to black theologian Major J. Jones, when European colonialists came to Africa and began treating its people as less than human because of their color, it became “psychologically impossible” for Africans not to have problems with God’s color. How could they ever conceive of a God who looked just like their oppressor? This legacy of black oppression, of course, traveled to the Americas, where white Jesus is omnipresent in visual culture.

Painting the Gospel book coverIn her book Painting the Gospel: Black Public Art and Religion in Chicago (University of Illinois Press, 2016), art historian Kymberly N. Pinder unpacks some of the ways that twentieth- and twenty-first-century Christians have countered the dominance of white Jesus with alternative sacred imagery that is black-affirming. Lavishly illustrated with sixty color photographs and eight black-and-whites, the book explores African American religious images—murals, mosaics, stained glass, sculptures, even T-shirt designs—from Chicago churches and their neighborhoods between 1904 and the present, focusing on their intersection with the social, political, and theological climates of the times. The image of a black Christ, Pinder argues, participated in some of the most significant movements in black history, including gospel music, sermon broadcasts/televangelism, the Chicago Black Renaissance, the civil rights movement, Black Liberation Theology, and the Mural Movement. The stream of influence flowed both ways, as each church’s preaching and outreach, musical, and visual cultures fed into one another.

A collection of case studies rather than a comprehensive guide, Painting the Gospel features churches whose pastors consciously nurtured a strong visual culture. “These sites,” Pinder writes, “enable me to chart how the arts interact with each other in the performance of black belief in each space, explain how empathetic realism structures these interactions for a variety of publics, and observe how this public art sits within a larger history of mural histories” (2). “Empathetic realism” is a term Pinder develops throughout the book as she considers how religious images have the power to assert political agendas of equality and humanity and thereby empower viewers, providing social and spiritual uplift. “Christ’s own difference, for which he was persecuted, becomes a source of empathy and identity for the African American,” she writes (8).

Christ as a dreadlocked black man on the cross, hip-hop youth kneeling at his feet, and Mary as an African woman in traditional Nigerian dress activate personal narratives for a black audience where private and public, the personal and the holy, the real and the represented, all meld, allowing for a spiritually transformative experience. (22–23)

The book covers works of art that have been largely excluded from art historical, theological, and sociological scholarship because of their racial or religious particularity. Working at the confluence of these disciplines, Pinder is concerned not with the artistic merit of the images but rather how they make meaning, how they “work” for an individual or a community—and especially how they interacted with and impacted certain milestones in black history. Her approach, her angle of inquiry, is much in the vein of David Morgan and Sally Promey.

Holy Angels mural by Engelbert Mveng
Mural by Engelbert Mveng, 1991, Holy Angels Catholic Church. The scenes depict moments when angels have intervened in the lives of Christ and the saints: (counterclockwise, from top left) St. Michael the Archangel; Three Men in the Fiery Furnace; Peter Freed from Prison; the Annunciation; the Resurrection; the Agony in the Garden; Judgment Day; the Hospitality of Abraham; the Healing of Tobit; the Nativity. Photo courtesy of Holy Angels Catholic Church.

In many ways, Painting the Gospel is an extension of an article Pinder wrote in 1997, titled “‘Our Father, God; our Brother, Christ; or are we bastard kin?’: Images of Christ in African American Painting.” This article addresses black-Jesus images in the world of twentieth-century fine art, which were produced by such artists as Jacob Lawrence, William H. Johnson, Aaron Douglas, Archibald Motley Jr., Frederick C. Flemister, Romare Bearden, John Biggers, David Hammons, and more. Pinder wondered whether black Christians consumed this imagery in the public sphere.  

This question led her to discover, perhaps surprisingly, that black-Christ imagery in black churches has been a slow-growing phenomenon: it has become more common only in the last few decades, and is still not widespread. While black churches eagerly include representations of historical and contemporary African Americans in and on their buildings, white biblical imagery is still also present to a large extent.

There are, of course, significant exceptions to this trend, and those exceptions are what Pinder discusses at length, among them the following church murals:

  • Proctor Chisholm, Black Christ and Mary, 1904, Quinn AME Chapel
  • William E. Scott, Life of Christ (six-piece cycle), 1936–37, Pilgrim Baptist Church (destroyed in a fire in 2006)
  • Frederick D. Jones, Neighborhood People Flocking to the Lord and Reverend Cobbs Blessing Congregants at the Altar, 1946, First Church of Deliverance
  • Joseph W. Evans Jr., Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian, 1986, Trinity United Church of Christ
  • Engelbert Mveng, 1991, Holy Angels Catholic Church
  • Bernard Williams, Hagar, Eunuch, and Simon the Cyrenian, 1996, Saint Edmund’s Episcopal Church
  • Fernando Arizti, For God So Loved the World, 2009, Faith Community of Saint Sabina Church

Other works of art that are discussed include an abstract steel sculpture of a dove by Richard Hunt, a Maafa Remembrance stained glass window by Tom Feelings, a baptismal font shaped like an African drum, mosaics of black figures important to the history of black Catholicism, a graffiti Crucifixion inscribed with a prayer, and more.

Woven into the discussion of these works are the history of the spaces they inhabit; biographical information on the artists, including their mentors, as well as influences and an overview of their total body of work; and the works’ correspondences to the specific missions of each church.

(Related post: “Christian-themed portraits by Kehinde Wiley”)

My two favorite chapters focus on William Walker and Damon Lamar Reed.

Walker helped found the Mural Movement in the 1960s. The most famous community mural project he coordinated was The Wall of Respect, which honors black heroes. Of the movement, he said:

Our murals will continue to speak of the liberation struggles of black and Third World peoples; they will record history, speak of today, and project toward the future. They will speak of an end to war, racism, and repression; of love, of beauty, of life. We want to restore an image of full humanity to the people, to place art in its true context—into life.

All of Mankind by William Walker
All of Mankind (detail), mural by William Walker, 1972 (now lost). Photo courtesy of the Chicago Public Art Group.

In 1972 Walker was commissioned by Father Dennis Kendricks to paint on the exterior of the San Marcello Mission “something reflecting the love and unity of the community.” Walker called this mural project All of Mankind. In the center he depicted a multiracial group of children whose faces are cubistically melded together, making their features continuous—sharing eyes, cheeks, and skin. The text above them reads, “Why were they crucified?” and the names of historical figures like Gandhi, Malcolm X, Anne Frank, Martin Luther King Jr., and Jesus Christ are listed. This Catholic mission was located in what was then the Cabrini-Green neighborhood, which was hard hit by poverty, crime, and drug use.

In 1974 the San Marcello Mission transferred ownership, and the building became Stranger’s Home Missionary Baptist Church. Since the Cabrini-Green housing projects were torn down to make way for redevelopment, the church had been struggling financially. As a result, they put the building up for sale in 2010. When Pinder’s book was going to press, Stranger’s Home whitewashed Walker’s deteriorating mural (much to the community’s dismay), and the building has since been bought. For more photos of the mural, see https://madaboutthemural.wordpress.com/2011/03/23/cabrini/.

Damon Lamar Reed is a contemporary muralist, T-shirt designer, and rapper, and an active member of the Chicago Public Art Group. He apprenticed under Bernard Williams, the lead restorer of William Walker’s murals, and his work has been exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. His hip-hop culture aesthetic appeals especially to young people.

I really like the mural he painted on Firehouse Community Arts Center, a ministry of Lawndale Community Church, whose services feature rapping, emceeing, graffiti writing, and breakdancing as spiritual acts. The graffitied inscription is a vernacular translation of Isaiah 43:19:

Ah yo, I am doing a new thang. Can you feel me?
I am making a new way out of the wilderness of life.
I am bringing out rivers from the desert.

I also like the bricolage mosaic he collaborated on with Moses X. Ball, pictured in detail on the cover; the full mural can be viewed here. It shows a black man wearing a gold cross necklace, baptizing himself with bottles of water.

Don't Let Nothing Hold You Down by Damon Lamar Reed
Damon Lamar Reed, Don’t Let Nothing Hold You Down, 2006. Oil on canvas.

Pinder’s discussion of T-shirts as public art—the body as “wall”—is particularly noteworthy. She draws Vito Acconci into the conversation, who said that the T-shirt “invites you to read text at the same time as it dares you to stare at the breasts behind it.”

Likewise compelling is her reflection on “black tragic space”—spaces marked by memory and loss—and the ever-changing urban landscape of Chicago.

I appreciate how Pinder encourages readers to make conceptual, historical, and geographical connections among the works she features by providing six tour itineraries, based on actual tours she has given her students and visiting scholars.

Painting the Gospel is an excellent interdisciplinary study of black Christian imagery within a specific locale, and the factors that helped shape it. Art is the starting point, with image analysis up front and center, but the discussion extends more broadly to history and theology. Artists are recognized alongside names like Junius C. Austin, Clarence Henry Cobbs, Jeremiah Wright, Michael Pfleger, and Father Augustine Tolton as key players in both black history and church history. The book includes many photos that can’t be found anywhere else, some of murals that are now lost, providing important documentation of Chicago’s rich cultural and religious heritage.

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