Roundup: “God is…” exhibition, new song cycle inspired by turn-of-the-century photographs, healing the imagination, and more

EXHIBITION: “God is . . . ,” May 14–23, gallery@oxo, London: The winning entry from the second Chaiya Art Awards competition, along with forty-nine shortlisted others, are being exhibited in London’s South Bank starting tomorrow. The exhibition also has a virtual option, which I received an advance preview of, along with the catalog. Read my review at ArtWay.eu. There is a diverse range of responses to the theme of “God is . . . ,” in a range of media!

Chaiya Art Awards 2021

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VIRTUAL CONCERT: “I Should Be Glad”: On May 2 the Choral Society of Durham and the Duke University Chorale put on a virtual concert, performing songs of lament and hope. They sing of “hours that go on broken wings” and “the unchanging ache of things”; of “this long, hard climb, carr[ying] ancestral sorrow”; of violence and murder; of God’s seeming absence; of feeling like a “moanin’ dove.” But they also sing invitations to be glad, to lay down one’s burden, to see beauty, to soar. Click here for a copy of the program, which contains credits, texts, and translations. I really enjoyed the selection of pieces—most were new to me—and the execution (technical and artistic) is excellent. An hour very well spent. Note that in lieu of a ticket charge, a $10 donation is recommended.

Among the songs are contemporary choral settings of traditional prayers, a civil rights hymn, and the world premiere of the five-movement Where We Find Ourselves by Michael Bussewitz-Quarm (she/her), inspired by the photographs of Hugh Magnum. Magnum, who was white, ran an integrated portrait studio in the Jim Crow South from 1897 until his death in 1922, photographing white and Black clients with equal dignity. The glass plate negatives and contact prints languished in his family’s moldering tobacco barn in Durham, North Carolina, until the 1970s, when they were discovered prior to the property’s slated demolition. They were transferred (many of them damaged) to the Duke University archives, where they again lay mostly dormant until being recently dug out by photographer-writers Margaret Sartor and Alex Harris, who compiled and presented them as an exhibition and accompanying book. Bussewitz-Quarm’s composition is a moving meditation on these timeworn photographs, and the lyrics by Shantel Sellers are pure poetry.

Hugh Magnum photographs
Photographs by Hugh Magnum, courtesy of the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University, Durham, NC

Hugh Magnum photographs
Hugh Magnum photographs
In some of the negatives the panels have fused, causing the subjects to extend past their frames and thus giving the illusion that they were sitting together.

Hugh Magnum photograph
“The portraits are often accidentally double-exposed,” writes Sarah Blackwood for the New Yorker, “and many of the double exposures overlay images of white and black sitters, who suddenly seem to sit alongside or even atop one another. Such ghostly interactions produce from two Mangum portraits an entirely new image altogether, one in which the pride and pleasure of self-presentation is shadowed by the racial realities of the time.”

Set list:

  • “I Should Be Glad” by Susan LaBarr (composer) and Sara Teasdale (lyricist)
  • “Sometimes I Feel,” traditional African American spiritual, arr. Alice Parker and Robert Shaw
  • “Meet Me Here” (from Considering Matthew Shepard) by Craig Hella Johnson
  • “Wanting Memories” by Ysaye M. Barnwell
  • “Hymn for These Times” by Jay Rogers (composer) and Meggan Moorhead (lyricist)
  • “Ave Maria” by Robert Nathaniel Dett (composer)
  • “Our Father” by Paul D. Weber (composer)
  • “Where We Find Ourselves” by Michael Bussewitz-Quarm (composer) and Shantel Sellers (lyricist)
  • “Hymn to Freedom” by Oscar Peterson (composer) (arr. Paul W. Read) and Harriette Hamilton (lyrics)

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POEM COMMENTARY: “The Night” by Henry Vaughan, commentary by Dr. Grace Hamman (blog post | podcast episode): I’ve featured poems by Henry Vaughan several times on this blog but not the one that just might be his most famous: “The Night,” about the Pharisee Nicodemus’s midnight rendezvous with Jesus (see John 3). It contains the beautiful and much-lauded line “There is in God, some say, / A deep but dazzling darkness . . .” Medieval literature scholar Grace Hamman [previously], podcaster and blogger at Old Books with Grace, reads and unpacks the poem, first giving some historical and biographical context. Vaughan was an Anglican Welshman living during the English Civil War when the Puritans were in power, which means he was cut off from the forms of worship through which he was used to encountering Christ. This, Hamman says, influenced his writing of the poem and of the larger collection, Silex Scintillians, it’s a part of.

She has made the commentary available in both written and audio form.

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EDITORIALS by JAMES K.A. SMITH:

When I see a James K.A. Smith [previously] byline, I know what follows is going to be good. He’s a fantastic thinker, writer, and speaker—and he’s the editor in chief of my favorite arts journal, Image. Below is a link to the opening editorial he wrote for each of the last two issues. (The whole journal is full of rich content. Subscribe!)

>> “Healing the Imagination: Art Lessons from James Baldwin,” Image no. 107 (Winter 2020): Here Smith engages with James Baldwin’s 1964 essay “The Uses of the Blues,” in which Baldwin discusses how we “project onto the Negro face, because it is so visible, all of our guilts and aggressions and desires”; white America invents stories and images of Black Americans that reflect our disfigured imaginations. “The imagination is a form of habit, a learned, bodily disposition to the world. . . . It’s the imagination—well- or malformed—that determines what I see before I look,” Smith writes.

He connects Baldwin’s essay to Jesus’s parable of the good Samaritan, showing how the priest and the Levite had different habits of perception than the protagonist. “To see the person before me as an enemy or animal”—or, I would add, a burden—“is a failure of imagination; to see a neighbor instead is a feat of the imagination. Our society is grappling with a soul-sickness that is ultimately an infection of our imagination.” We reflexively imagine others as threats, competitors, adversaries.

The arts can play a huge role in reshaping our imaginations, in retraining us to see people rightly. “I dream of a third Great Awakening,” he says, “in which our imaginations would be reborn, a sanctification of sight baptized by stories and images such that even our first glance is holy. The tents for this revival would be galleries and cinemas; we’ll sing from poems and novels; the altar call will invite us to attend plays and contemplate sculpture.” He’s not saying art should replace church or religion but that art is a powerful agent of spiritual and perceptual formation; “the arts pluck the strings of our imagination uniquely.”

In their March 3 episode, “Healing the Imagination, with James K.A. Smith,” The Weight podcast had Smith on to expound on some of the points in the editorial, to unpack this musing: “Could it be that the arts are more likely to move the needle on our collective perception of one another?” He discusses definitions of “culture” and “art,” both creational goods (God has deputized human beings to unfurl the tacit possibilities he has folded into creation!); the influence of Augustine and Kuyper on his thought; the “transcending, opening, decentering” potential of artistic encounters; his experience of becoming an American citizen; and why he believes national healing will come not primarily through politics but through the arts. He mentions a few commendable recent examples of churches’ hospitality toward artists, citing Pope John Paul II’s 1999 Letter to Artists, written “to all who are passionately dedicated to the search for new ‘epiphanies’ of beauty so that through their creative work as artists they may offer these as gifts to the world,” and Redeemer Church of Knoxville, who converted the unused rooms of their building into artist studios for the larger community to use.

“Christian communities, if they actually really care about healing the soul of a nation, could do no better than to invest in the arts,” Smith says. “Not so we can go make Thomas Kinkade paintings or Kirk Cameron movies or whatever, but so that we have artists who are actually speaking to our neighbors in ways that meet them as human.”

>> “How to Visit a Museum: Disciplines of Availability,” Image no. 108 (Spring 2021): “Aesthetic experiences I didn’t go looking for that burrow their way most deeply into my psyche . . . are only possible if I am cultivating a way of life that puts me in front of artworks that don’t conform to my preferences. That might mean signing up for the disciplines of an aesthetic way of life in which I am puzzled or frustrated or decentered by the feeling of ‘not getting it.’ It means approaching paintings and poems without expecting immediate returns. In my experience, the way of surprise lies in listening to a community of friends bear witness to what has captivated them and letting my puzzlement be an impetus to explore new territory. When Shane McCrae gushes about a poet who has felt inaccessible to me, I assume I have something to learn. And so I taste and see. A life hungry for aesthetic surprise does not settle for daily doses of predictably poignant comfort; instead, I need to expose my palate to strange, maybe even unsavory tastes as a way of making myself available for the sublime. While we can’t manufacture the surprise, we can learn to make ourselves available.” Read more at the link.

Reminds me of a creative prompt given last November by Corey Frey of The Well Collaborative in Frederick, Maryland: “Find a challenging poem or work of art or piece of music that doesn’t trigger your appreciative mechanism quite so easily. Sit with it. Let it confuse you. Allow its toe to creep in the crack of the door of your respect (re-spect: look a second time).”

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