In September 2019 I visited Atlanta, Georgia, and one of the two art stops I made was the Clark Atlanta University Art Museum, whose purpose is “to collect, preserve, research, and exhibit fine art works that document the role of African Americans in American history and culture.” When I got there I was bummed to see that the museum was closed in preparation for three exhibitions that were to open that Sunday. But graciously, even though the signage and lighting hadn’t been installed and some of the objects were still being moved around, the curator allowed me in for a little glimpse.
I was stopped in my tracks by a mixed media sculpture in the gallery of recent acquisitions: Float by Alfred Conteh.
It shows a Black female Christ figure rising up in a whirl of energy, her hat blown aloft. Wounds are visible on her hands and feet, but these are taken up into new, greening life. At the bottom is a broken chain, indicating that she has been set free. The piece expresses the exhilaration of emancipation, of being shackled no more.
I would classify Float as a resurrection image, which its staging reinforces. To its far left is a wooden crucifix by Dilmus Hall, followed by The Mourners by Frederick C. Flemister, from 1942. (Note that the two crucifix photos in this post are courtesy of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, who donated the pieces to the museum.)
Drawing on iconography of the Lamentation over the Dead Christ, Flemister’s The Mourners shows a mother holding the corpse of her grown son, who has just been deposed from a lynching tree. Behind her a woman in a pink dress throws up her arms in grief, and a preteen boy runs into his own mother’s arms for comfort. Like many artists before and after him, Flemister connects the killings of innocent Black men to the killing of Jesus—not because their deaths are salvific but because both they and Jesus were unjustly “crucified,” and because Black men bear God’s image, which the visual conflation reminds us of. As Jesus told his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40).
Death and resurrection, suffering and hope, are the theme of this temporary exhibition. A second wooden crucifix, by Thornton Dial Jr., adorns the opposite wall. It’s titled I’ll Be Back, which, as the sculpture was made a few years after The Terminator came out, may be a playful reference to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s famous line, but it is first and foremost an affirmation that Jesus will return to earth, as promised, to fully set things right. (By the way, I wonder if Conteh, in making Float, was inspired by the hubcap component of another of Dial’s crucifixes . . .)
The last piece in the room is Ceres by John W. Arterbery. Ceres was the Roman goddess of agriculture, grain crops, and fertility, the equivalent of the Greek mother-goddess Demeter. In Arterbery’s painting she wears a crown of sprouting wheat stalks and holds a pitchfork in one hand and a leafless plant with buds and berries in the other. I think the flowers may be poppies, as Ceres is associated with those.
It appears as though Arterbery is depicting the imminence of spring, when Ceres will be reunited with her daughter Proserpine (Persephone) and life will grow and flourish. It shows Ceres looking toward the sun in anticipation of such a time. Read in conjunction with the other pieces in the room, Ceres could be interpreted as an Advent image—a waiting for the final fulfillment of God’s good purposes for his creation, which includes a definitive end to suffering and oppression and a universal thriving.
The Clark Atlanta University Art Museum is typically open Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., as well as by appointment, but you may want to email ahead of time (cauArtMuseum@gmail.com) to confirm. It’s definitely worth a visit, though I can’t guarantee that the works featured here will be on display. If you wish to browse photos of pieces from the museum’s collection, see In the Eye of the Muses: Selections from the Clark Atlanta University Art Collection (2012).