Alfred Conteh’s “Float” and other recent CAUAM acquisitions

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.  

Conteh, Alfred_Float
Alfred Conteh (American, 1975–), Float, 2014. Steel, epoxy dough, thermoadhesive plastic, atomized steel dust, atomized bronze dust, urethane plastic, steel chain, 93 × 46 × 35 in. Clark Atlanta University Art Museum, Atlanta, Georgia. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Conteh, Alfred_Float (detail)

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.

(Related posts: “Contemporary Black artists at the Baltimore Museum of Art”; “Christ figure in Justin Dingwall’s Albus series”)

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.)

Clark Atlanta U aquisitions
Hall, Dilmus_Untitled (Crucifixion)
Dilmus Hall (American, 1896–1987), Untitled, n.d. Wood, wood putty, plastic beads, and paint, 12 × 9 in. Clark Atlanta University Art Museum, Atlanta, Georgia. Photo: Stephen Pitkin / Pitkin Studio.

Flemister, Frederick C._The Mourners
Frederick C. Flemister (American, 1916–1976), The Mourners, 1942. Oil on canvas, 39 3/4 × 31 1/4 in. Clark Atlanta University Art Museum, Atlanta, Georgia. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

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 . . .)

Dial Jr., Thornton_I'll Be Back
Thornton Dial Jr. (American, 1953–), I’ll Be Back, 1988. Wood, metal, barbed wire, string, fabric, industrial sealing compound, enamel, nails, 35 × 32 × 6 3/4 in. Clark Atlanta University Art Museum, Atlanta, Georgia. Photo: Stephen Pitkin / Pitkin Studio.

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.

Arterbery, John W._Ceres
John W. Arterbery (American, 1928–1977), Ceres, 1963. Oil on Masonite, 60 × 47 1/2 in. Clark Atlanta University Art Museum, Atlanta, Georgia. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

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).

Victory Is Ours (Artful Devotion)

Alston, Charles_Walking
Charles Alston (American, 1907–1977), Walking, 1958. Oil on canvas, 48 3/8 × 64 3/4 in. (122.9 × 164.5 cm). Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, DC. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

If God is for us, who can be against us? . . . Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

—Romans 8:31b, 35, 37

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SONG: “Victory Is Ours,” a setting of a prayer by Desmond Tutu

Goodness is stronger than evil
Love is stronger than hate
Light is stronger than darkness
Life is stronger than death
Victory is ours through Him who loves us

First published in An African Prayer Book (Doubleday, 2006), this text is by Desmond Tutu, the famous South African Anglican cleric and theologian known for his work as an anti-apartheid and human rights activist. It has been set to music by several composers, most popularly John Bell but also James Whitbourn, David Schwoebel, Thomas Keesecker, and others. My favorite setting is the one in the video above, sung by an ecumenical choir from churches in and around Ridgewood, New Jersey, at the 2012 Hymn Festival at West Side Presbyterian Church. A few weeks ago I emailed the church’s music minister asking who the composer is but haven’t heard back, and extensive online searching has yielded no results. If you know who wrote the music, please do share! I’d also love to get my hands on some sheet music.

In the epistle reading from Sunday’s lectionary, the apostle Paul is writing to the church in Rome regarding religious persecution, assuring them that in Christ they have the power to face and overcome tribulations, distresses, and attacks of the enemy. Tutu extends that idea into the context of racial persecution, state-sponsored or otherwise. We must actively resist such injustice in the name of him who is Goodness, Love, Light, and Life. When we walk together in the Spirit on the side of these virtues, we will ultimately prevail against all counterforces.

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“A pivotal figure within the Harlem Renaissance, Charles Henry Alston was passionately dedicated to empowering African Americans through cultural enrichment and artistic advancement. Throughout his distinguished career as an artist and an educator, he continually sought to reclaim and explore racial identity with its complicated implications. Inspired by the modern idiom of Modigliani and Picasso, as well as African art, Alston’s work addresses both the personal and communal aspects of the black experience.” (Read more)

Alston’s Walking was inspired by the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955–56, a massive protest campaign against racial segregation in public transit, organized by black women’s political groups and facilitated through churches. The boycott was a seminal event in the civil rights movement in the US, coming years before the Selma to Montgomery marches in Alabama in 1965. “The idea of a march was growing,” Alston recalled of the time of the painting, 1958. “It was in the air . . . and this painting just came. I called it Walking on purpose. It wasn’t the militancy that you saw later. It was a very definite walk—not going back, no hesitation.”

Walking is part of the Smithsonian’s “Oh Freedom! Teaching African American Civil Rights Through Art” curriculum.

Alston, Charles_Walking (detail)

Alston, Charles_Walking (detail)


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 12, cycle A, click here.

God Who Saves (Artful Devotion)

Bearden, Romare_New Orleans, Ragging Home
Romare Bearden (American, 1912–1988), New Orleans: Ragging Home (from the Of the Blues series), 1974. Collage of plain, painted, and printed papers, with acrylic, lacquer, graphite, and marker, mounted on Masonite panel, 36 1/8 × 48 in. (91.8 × 121.9 cm). North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

You will say in that day:

“I will give thanks to you, O LORD,
for though you were angry with me,
your anger turned away,
that you might comfort me.

“Behold, God is my salvation;
I will trust, and will not be afraid;
for the LORD GOD is my strength and my song,
and he has become my salvation.”

With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day:

“Give thanks to the LORD,
call upon his name,
make known his deeds among the peoples,
proclaim that his name is exalted.

“Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously;
let this be made known in all the earth.
Shout, and sing for joy, O inhabitant of Zion,
for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.”

—Isaiah 12:1–6

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SONG: “Surely, It Is God Who Saves” | Text: Adapted from Canticle 9, “The First Song of Isaiah,” in the Book of Common Prayer (based on Isaiah 12:2–6) | Music by Uptown Worship Band, performed on Songs from Earth, Our Island Home (2014)

For another Artful Devotion featuring the Uptown Worship Band, see “Exalted Trinity.”


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 28, cycle C, click here.

Art highlights from CIVA conference, part 2

This is part two of a three-part series based on some of my art encounters at the Christians in the Visual Arts conference held June 13–16, 2019, at Bethel University. This post covers a handful of notable artworks I was introduced to through slides; part three will cover art I experienced in person through the conference’s exhibitions and auction. Read part one, about the Sacred Spaces tour of Minneapolis, here.

In his introductory remarks to the 2019 CIVA conference, Chris Larson cited Lauren Bon’s Artists Need to Create on the Same Scale That Society Has the Capacity to Destroy, the eponymous work of the Brooklyn Rail–curated exhibition running through November 24 at the church of Santa Maria delle Penitenti in Venice, a collateral event of the Venice Biennale. It’s a great rallying quote, one that I hadn’t heard before but that I can really get behind.

Bon, Lauren_Artists Need to Create
Lauren Bon (American, 1962–), Artists Need to Create on the Same Scale That Society Has the Capacity to Destroy, 2006. Neon, edition 1 of 12. Photo: Joshua White, courtesy of the Metabolic Studio, Los Angeles.

The theme of the conference was “Are We There Yet,” a deliberately broad question which I took as referring to the conversation between serious art and serious faith, which CIVA has been heavily engaged in over its forty-year history. We talked about where “there” is and unpacked other aspects of the conference title, but I’m sidestepping those discussions to focus on the visual.

Wayne Roosa oriented our gathering by introducing us to two conceptual art projects by Simon Starling that offer opposing archetypes of the journey. The first, more aspirational one is Shedboatshed (Mobile Architecture No. 2), which involved the movement of a wooden shed from one Swiss riverside location to another. “This journey of 8 km downstream from Schweizerhalle to the centre of Basel was undertaken through the temporary mutation of the shed into a boat. This boat, a copy of a traditional Weidling, was made only with wood from the shed and was subsequently used as a transport system for the remaining parts of the structure. The shed already included an oar of the type used on Weidlings nailed to its facade as decoration. In its new location, the Museum für Gegenwartskunst, the boat was then dismantled and once again re-configured into its original form, but for a few scars left over from its life as a boat, it stands just as it once did several kilometres up-stream” [source].

Starling, Simon_Shedboatshed
Simon Starling (British, 1967–), Shedboatshed (Mobile Architecture No. 2 (production still), 2005. Wooden shed, 390 × 600 × 340 cm.

Starling, Simon_Shedboatshed

Starling, Simon_Shedboatshed

Starling, Simon_Shedboatshed

Starling, Simon_Shedboatshed

Starling, Simon_Shedboatshed
Simon Starling (British, 1967–), Shedboatshed (Mobile Architecture No. 2), 2005. Wooden shed, 390 × 600 × 340 cm. Installation at Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Basel, Switzerland.

“What I’m doing in a gallery situation,” says the artist, “is presenting a journey that I’ve been on, a process I’ve undertaken, and I’m asking for people to look at that in reverse. The circularity of many of the projects is a device to tell a story and it means that if you’re making a work about process, if you start and end in the same place, then somehow the journey becomes the important thing.” I think of lines from T. S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding”: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from”—and further down, “And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”

The second Starling work we considered was Autoxylopyrocycloboros, “a four-hour entropic voyage made across Loch Long [in Scotland] on a small wooden steamboat fuelled by wood cut piece-by-piece from its own hull.” This theatre of destruction ends with the boat’s debris floating—or sinking, as it were—in the water, Starling and his crewmate bobbing in their life vests somewhere out of frame. (The journey is presented in gallery settings as a series of thirty-eight color transparencies.) The title is an extrapolation of “ouroboros,” the mythical serpent who eats his own tail.

Starling, Simon_Autoxylopyrocycloboros
Simon Starling (British, 1967–), Autoxylopyrocycloboros, 2006. 38 color transparencies, 6 × 7 cm each.

Starling, Simon_Autoxylopyrocycloboros

Starling, Simon_Autoxylopyrocycloboros

Starling, Simon_Autoxylopyrocycloboros

Starling, Simon_Autoxylopyrocycloboros

Roosa suggested that as we navigate the waters, we can either self-destruct, eating ourselves alive, or we can deconstruct and then reconstruct. As an organization, we ought to be committed to the latter—taking apart the structure we started with and putting it back together.

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Over two and a half days of conference, there were several artists’ panels that brought to the fore some truly exciting work. I especially enjoyed hearing artists Sedrick and Letitia Huckaby, a married couple, discuss their different artistic media, styles, content choices, and creative processes, and the way their work interacts with the other’s. Both explore themes of family, faith, and African American heritage.

Sedrick Huckaby is a painter, draftsman, printmaker, and sculptor known for his portraits. His earliest body of work is a series of impasto paintings of his maternal grandmother, Hallie Beatrice Welcome Carpenter (“Big Momma”), inside her old wood-framed house in Fort Worth, Texas. These are so tender—they show her resting, drinking coffee, reading her Bible, getting ready for church, talking with family. After Big Momma died, he continued making in absentia portraits of her by depicting accessories she wore or household spaces that bear her imprint—The Shoes She Wore, The Altar Dresser. Sedrick is now renovating Big Momma’s house to serve as a creative project space for the neighborhood.

Huckaby, Sedrick_Sitting in Her Room
Sedrick Huckaby (American, 1975–), Sitting in Her Room, 2008. Oil on canvas in rustic wood framework, 48 × 36 in.

Family has long been the primary subject of Sedrick’s art. I love the 2006 portrait he painted of his wife seated at the foot of their bed and holding their firstborn son, Rising Sun. Mother and child are surrounded by family quilts, made by aunts and grandmothers. The opening between the two wall-hanging quilts forms a square halo around Letitia’s head.

Huckaby, Sedrick_Letitia and Rising Sun
Sedrick Huckaby (American, 1975–), Letitia and Rising Sun, 2006. Oil on canvas, 54 × 36 in.

Huckaby, Sedrick_About Family
Sedrick Huckaby (American, 1975–), About Family, 2016. Charcoal and chalk on wood, 13 × 23 7/8 in.

Continue reading “Art highlights from CIVA conference, part 2”