VISUAL COMMENTARIES: Elijah’s Ascent by Victoria Emily Jones: My latest contribution to the Visual Commentary on Scripture was published this month. It’s a mini-exhibition on 2 Kings 2:1–12, featuring a seventeenth-century Russian icon, a 1944 painting by African American artist William H. Johnson, and a 1985 painting (a Jewish chapel commission) by Polish-born Israeli artist Shlomo Katz. (For more context on the Katz painting, see here.)
NATIONAL MOURNING:Washington National Cathedral tolled its mourning bell four hundred times Tuesday evening in remembrance of the 400,000 lives lost from COVID in the United States thus far—each ring representing one thousand dead. I spent the thirty-eight-minute livestream lamenting this enormous loss, praying for all those who are grieving and for patients and health care workers, and pleading with God for an end to this virus.
The origami paper doves you see in the video are part of the Les Colombes installation by Michael Pendry [previously], erected in December in the cathedral’s nave to symbolize hope and the Holy Spirit.
MUSIC VIDEO: “For the Sake of Old Times” (Auld Lang Syne): Directed by Tyler Jones of the narrative studio 1504, this short film premiered December 30, 2020, by NPR. “From the pews of a church where white deacons once refused to seat African Americans, a group of Black singers in Alabama reminds us why preserving our memories of this historic year is vital—even if we’d rather just leave 2020 behind.” [HT: ImageUpdate]
“To me the piece is a personal encouragement going into the future,” Jones says, “that we hopefully strive to work together for a kinder future, especially at a time where we are so distanced.” Read about the making of the film at https://n.pr/3n6d8Ct.
ARTICLE: “On the Gifts of Street Art” by Jason A. Goroncy, Zadok: The Australasian Religious Press Association awarded silver prize for “Best Theological Article” to Jason Goroncy [previously] for this piece. (How cool that it won in the theology category!) Like all art, street art can function as a form of civic dialogue, protest, play, hope, remembrance, etc., but Goroncy discusses how some of its particular qualities uniquely position it to perform those functions: its (usually) unsanctioned and interventionist nature, its fragility and impermanence, its celebration and development of culture, its inseparability from place, and its redefinitions of proprietorship. [HT: Art/s and Theology Australia]
“Among the many gifts that street artists offer,” Goroncy writes, “is a proclivity to bear witness to how things are and not merely to how they might appear to be. Such a proclivity involves a telling of the truth about those largely-untampered-with and untraversed spaces of our urban worlds, about what is present but underexposed or disregarded; and even, as Auden hints, to lead with ‘unconstraining voice’ the way toward healing and toward a renewed sense of enchantment, freedom and praise beyond the pedestrian and clamorous. Such a proclivity is also a form of urban spirituality. It can even be a form of public theology.”
This week I’ve been editing and captioning a backlog of photos from my camera, and I’ve come to a batch I took last August from Every Day: Selections from the Collection at the Baltimore Museum of Art, a reinstallation of the museum’s contemporary collection centered on black artistic imagination. I thought I’d share some of these photos here as a way to introduce you to some of today’s leading black American artists.
In the first gallery, an untitled neon sculpture by Glenn Ligon confronts the viewer, consisting of two black lightbox letter signs lying face-down on the floor, which each read, with some difficulty, “America.” They emit a flickering white light that pulsates at random. The piece is part of a series of variations on that word—a word, Ligon says, that means different things to different people.
He said his “double America” motif was inspired by the opening lines of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness . . . it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair . . .” The wall text continues: “Dickens used a series of opposing statements to capture a moment in European history [1775–92] in which wealth coexisted with poverty, war with leisure and comfort, and aspirational ideals with harsh realities. Ligon sees similar extremes at work in the twenty-first century: ‘There is this sense that America, for all its dark deeds, is still this shining light.’”
In the age of MAGA I’m reminded of a poem by Langston Hughes published in July 1936, “Let America Be America Again,” in which he laments that as a country, we’ve never been what we’ve aspired to be: a place of liberty and justice for all. He loves America and the ideals on which it was founded but is forced to reckon with its failures, pointing out the hypocrisy of a nation that proclaims in its founding document that “all men are created equal” while segregating, disenfranchising, and brutalizing African Americans. (And the poem goes on to cite inequalities experienced by other groups too.) It’s very much in the spirit of Frederick Douglass’s speech less than a century earlier, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
. . .
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
. . .
Hear Ligon discuss his art practice in the “A Closer Look” interview from the BMA, below, and zoom in on some of his artworks at Google Arts & Culture.
Behind Ligon’s neon sculpture was a large gouache by Kara Walker titled Terrible Vacation. It was impossible to get a decent photo with the glare on the glass, so here is a professional photo of the painting, unframed, from Sikkema Jenkins & Co.
Best known for her room-size tableaux of cut-paper silhouettes addressing the history of race in America, here she pays homage to J. M. W. Turner’s 1840 Slave Ship, the Romantic painter’s abolitionist response to the Zong massacre of 1781, in which the captain of a British slave ship en route to Jamaica threw 133 sick enslaved people overboard to collect insurance on them as property “lost at sea.” Human and elemental violence converge in Turner’s painting, as a ship sails through a stormy ocean filled with flailing human limbs in chains.
Walker’s painting after Turner brings this mass murder to the attention of a new public, and though it references the past of England in particular, America, as a fellow player in the transatlantic slave trade, is implicated too.
On the left wall was a story quilt by Baltimore artist Stephen Towns [previously], one is a series paying tribute to Harriet Tubman.
Titled We Shall Pass through the Combahee, it records the historic military operation, led by Harriet Tubman, known as the Raid on Combahee Ferry, which succeeded in freeing seven hundred-plus slaves. During the Civil War, on June 1–2, 1863, Tubman guided two of Lincoln’s gunboats, peopled with Union Army soldiers, along the Combahee in South Carolina to strategic points near the shore where slaves awaited rescue, avoiding rebel torpedoes along the way.
Towns modeled the scene after Emanuel Leutze’s famous 1851 painting Washington Crossing the Delaware, set during the Revolutionary War, but he recasts Tubman as the American hero, bravely leading her people and her nation to victory. The church in the background likely represents the historic Tabernacle Baptist Church in Beaufort, where the escapees gathered after the raid, further up the river, before being relocated to St. Helena Island. It is illuminated as if by divine light because Tubman always said it was God who gave her direction in making certain critical moves during her many rescue operations—as Underground Railroad conductor and as military leader.
Towns describes the piece, and his complicated relationship to history and patriotism:
New York–based Afro-Dominican artist Firelei Báez examines through her art the historical narratives of the Afro-Caribbean diaspora, focusing on the politics and cultural ambiguities of place, writes ArtDaily. May 19, 2017, 6:05 p.m. (an idiom playing out its history) at the Baltimore Museum of Art commemorates New Orleans’s removal of the monument to Confederate general Robert E. Lee, erected in 1884, from “Lee Circle.” “It’s a gesture that reacts in time both forward and backwards, almost like a prayer, in solidarity with the people who had to suffer through that space and the resistance moving forward,” Báez said.
Katie A. Pfohl, a curator at the New Orleans Museum of Art, writes about the series to which this piece belongs, which focuses on key chapters from New Orleans’s past:
In these new paintings, Báez overlays figures, symbolic imagery, and calligraphic gestures onto architectural surveys from the 1930s-era Historic American Buildings Survey, a project of the Works Progress Administration, of significant sites across New Orleans. Blurring the lines between past, present, and future, Báez paints new imagery upon these archival drawings, and in the process overwrites the often divisive history these older documents represent. Báez carries portraiture into a space where identity is rooted in history, but can likewise become untethered—and liberated—from it.
Another Báez piece in the BMA’s collection is Convex (recalibrating a blind spot), which consists of a diagram of the American Sugar Refinery in New Orleans overpainted with vibrant colors.
In the same gallery as the previous four pieces was a photograph diptych by Dawoud Bey, from his Birmingham Project series.
On September 15, 1963, four young black girls—Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley—were killed when white supremacists bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Fifty years later, Dawoud Bey worked with Birmingham residents to memorialize them, to pay “tribute to those who were in Birmingham at that difficult moment and those who have been born since.” He photographed adolescents the same ages as those who had died, and men and women in the fifties and sixties, the ages those young people would be had they lived.
Over and over again, white supremacists have sought to terrorize black communities by setting fire to black churches. The 1990s saw an increase in such terrorist acts and images circulated widely of burning churches, past and present. In this drawing, Gary Simmons blended his recollections of these images into a composite picture of a single church, repeated three times. He used his fingers to smudge trails of charcoal dust across the paper, creating ghostly impressions of flames of smoke. “I do this as a way of creating a feeling of something familiar but displaced,” the artist explains. “The image is intended to hang in one’s memory . . . the further one gets from an experience, the more it becomes abstracted.”
Ernest Shaw, a local artist and art educator, points out how the white frames around the paper create crosses, representing crossroads as well as black spirituality:
How long is a chain?
How long is a change?
How heavy is a chain?
How heavy is a change?
—Melvin Edwards, 1970
In Scales of Injustice, a steel platform resembling one half of a weighted scale holds a tangle of barbed wire. It is suspended over a length of chain sprawled out on the floor, and the whole scene, sited in a corner, is separated from the viewer by a barbed-wire barrier. This conceptual sculpture by Melvin Edwards is an adaptation of a site-responsive work he exhibited at the Whitney Museum in 1970, Corner for Ana, the title a reference to his young daughter and to the notion of “timeout.”
The materials—steel chain, barbed wire—evoke brutality and oppression. Perhaps it’s change, in a larger sense, that hangs in the balance, precarious and unsure.
Edwards said this re-creation was in response to the death of Pateh Sabally, a twenty-two-year-old Gambian refugee who drowned in the Grand Canal of Venice on January 21, 2017, as onlookers taunted and filmed his struggles and offered no help.
For this video, Lorna Simpson recorded fifteen professional singers separately humming along to jazz saxophonist John Coltrane’s haunting interpretation of Rogers and Hart’s “It’s Easy to Remember.” Simpson then combined the recordings to create a choir of voices. This layered tune becomes the soundtrack for a grid of moving images, each focused tightly on one singer’s lips. The individuality of each participant emerges in variations among the mouths, a part of the body integrally linked to expression and physicality. The video demonstrates that even within a collective experience, including one of songs and the emotions they conjure, independent voices persist and disrupt.
David Hammons grew up in Springfield (Illinois), studied art in Los Angeles, and then settled in New York City in 1974, where he still lives. Traveling is one of his many “basketball drawings,” which he made by bouncing a Spalding around the streets of Harlem and onto a nine-foot-tall sheet of paper, creating atmospheric gray pebbling that resembles clouds in the sky or light and shadow on the ground.
I love the love of place this piece promotes. “Harlem dirt” is listed as the primary material! Hammons is sanctifying the dust of his neighborhood (“the ephemeral stuff of black urban experience”) by bringing it into a high-art context, essentially saying, “My background, my experiences, are worthy.” Martin Herbert, writing for Frieze, discusses the multivalence of the title:
The title of this work, Traveling, evokes many things: the eponymous rule of basketball that says you can’t take the ball and run with it; Hammons’ own movement across the Atlantic and that of the grimy orange sphere across the room; the upward mobility of dirt-into-art, and its direct social analogue—the ‘coming up from the streets’ dream/boast of a million aspiring rappers and pro-court players in environments where, as hip-hopper Mos Def put it, ‘you can either get paid or get shot’.
The artwork juts out from the wall at a slight angle, and one discovers propped behind it a thin brown suitcase.
About Planes, rockets, and the spaces in between, Sherald writes,
I wanted the environment to be in what would be perceived as an American landscape. These two figures are witnesses of a very American moment in history. . . . One key thing to note in all of my paintings is that the figures in the work will never be passive participants. Eye contact plays an extraordinary and crucial role in human connection. The figure gazing off at the rocket as she holds her friend’s hand solidifies the moment, as the second figure looks back to meet the gaze of the viewer.
I’ve appreciated how conscientious the Baltimore Museum of Art has been, in the past two years especially, in expanding its collection to better reflect the city it’s in. In 2018 it deaccessioned redundancies in its contemporary holdings to enable the purchase of new works by female artists and artists of color. Such acquisitions “enhance our ability to tell the uniquely varied and layered narratives that exist across the history of art and into the present,” said BMA director Christopher Bedford in a press release.
I also appreciate the video interviews with artists that the museum has been producing, which I hope to see more of.
INTERVIEW:“Singing the Songs of Injustice” with David M. Bailey and W. David O. Taylor: David Bailey is the director of the reconciliation ministry Arrabon and founder of its music-making and liturgical resource arm, Urban Doxology, and David Taylor is an assistant professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary. In this conversation the two men discuss how “biblical, angry, congregational worship can help transform our hearts and churches.” “God has given us the psalms to be an ‘anger school’ for us and I’ve discovered that when we skip class, we aren’t emotionally equipped to deal with difficult stuff we’re experiencing now,” Taylor says. “The extraordinary gift of the psalms is that they show us how to pray angry prayers without being overcome by our anger, how to hate without sinning (to borrow from Saint Paul’s language), or, as Eugene Peterson once put it, how to ‘cuss without cussing.’”
Bailey and Taylor talk about the constant simmer of race relations in America, faithful versus unfaithful expressions of anger, the language of “enemy” in the Psalms, the importance of lament in Sunday gatherings and the need for language that expresses the horizontal aspects of what it means to be a Christian, and leading without moderation during turbulent times.
Taylor’s latest book, Open and Unafraid: The Psalms as a Guide to Life, contains a chapter on “The Psalms of Anger.” Read an excerpt here, or view this video talk. To coincide with the release in March, he and his wife Phaedra created a set of fifteen prayer cards. His prayer on the “Anger” card reads, “To the God whose holy anger heals, to the Messiah whose righteous anger overcomes evil, and to the Spirit who keeps our angers from turning violent and destructive: receive our wounded hearts, take our burning words, protect us from the desire for revenge. May our faithful angers become fuel for justice in our fractured world and for the mending of broken relations in our communities. For God’s sake—and ours. Amen.”
“I Just Wanna Live” by Johnnetta Bryant, performed by Keedron Bryant: Twelve-year-old gospel singer Keedron Bryant posted a video on Instagram last week of himself singing a song his mom wrote in response to the killing of George Floyd. “God gave me those lyrics” for Keedron, she said in a joint interview on Today. Keedron said he prayed the song, meditated with it, then hit record. It’s a heart-baring, heartbreaking lament, a plea for divine protection in a world that is especially dangerous for young black males.
“It Is Enough!” by R. DeAndre Johnson: R. DeAndre Johnson is the pastor of music and worship life at Christ Church Sugar Land outside Houston. He wrote the lyrics for “It Is Enough!” in July 2016 following the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile but hadn’t set them to music until now. The nine verses bear the refrain “Kyrie eleison” (Lord, have mercy!), or “Christe eleison” (Christ, have mercy!), a common cry of lament. “There are no words that can contain / The depth of sorrow, grief, and pain / That mothers, sons, and all exclaim: / Kyrie eleison!” Johnson sang the song for his church’s livestreamed service on May 31. A lead sheet is available on his Facebook page. [HT: Global Christian Worship]
“I Want Jesus to Walk with Me”: Sharon Irving is a singer-songwriter, spoken-word artist, and worship leader from Chicago who was also a semifinalist on season 10 of America’s Got Talent. In this video from 2015 she sings a spiritual that expresses deep sorrow—“When my strength is failing,” “When my heart is aching,” “When my life feels like a burden”—but also trust in the companionship of Christ, who walks with us through valleys of death. Having likely originated as an improvisation, the song has several lyrical variations and can be easily adapted to voice a range of feelings: “In my rage,” “In my frustration,” “In my exhaustion,” “In my confusion,” etc.
“O This Night Is Dark” by Tom Wuest: Last Sunday my congregation sang Isaac’s Wardell’s setting of Psalm 126 [previously], whose refrain is “Although we are weeping, Lord, help us keep sowing the seeds of your kingdom . . .” Seeds of love, truth, justice, hope. I just learned that Wardell’s song was inspired by Tom Wuest’s “O This Night Is Dark,” released in 2008 on Rain Down Heaven. In addition to Psalm 126, Wuest’s song also references 1 Corinthians 15, Isaiah 2, Amos 9, and Isaiah 65.
And this week as I was listening to the song, the following image by Scott Erickson showed up on my Instagram feed, with the caption “If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it” (1 Cor. 12:26).
Erickson painted the image in July 2016 in response to the fatal shootings of Sterling and Castile. It suggests that tears of grief can be generative, that new life can rise out of death. That’s not at all to say that death is good because it catalyzes a movement of change, but that our mourning the evils of racism and murder, our publicly crying out “Enough!,” is not fruitless, though it often seems so. Growth will come.
VIDEO ART: Weight by André Daughtry: “Weight is an attempt to visualize societal projections on the black male body,” writes André Daughtry, a Brooklyn-based interdisciplinary photography and media artist, writer, and performer. The piece is from 2014, and last year PBS’s AllArts station commissioned Daughtry to restage it in New York City as part of a larger video work. [HT: ImageUpdate]
Daughtry has a master’s degree in theology and the arts from Union Theological Seminary and serves as community minister of the arts at Judson Memorial Church, which has a long history of nurturing artists. “We believe that artists have the potential to serve as our modern-day prophets,” the church website reads. “They show us where we’ve been, who we are, and what we can become.”
PODCAST EPISODE: “The SPU Conversation About Spike Lee Films,”North by Pacific Northwest: In this Seattle Pacific University conversation released April 11, 2019, two cinephiles, Jeffrey Overstreet and Josh Hornbeck, discuss some of the films of writer-director Spike Lee, “the boldest and brashest auteur in American film” (Guardian). The first several minutes, though, are spent decrying the then recent Oscar win of Green Book, which popular audiences loved but critics were generally sour on because it perpetuates the simplistic and ultimately false notion that to solve racism, white people just need to realize that “we’re all the same” and find a black friend.
Best known for Do the Right Thing (1989), Lee is one of several filmmakers they cite who deals with race in more complex ways, and while some people dismiss him as an “angry black man,” many celebrate him for forcing audiences to reckon with the problem of racism. “I think there should be rage inside of every conscious human being in the world, because there’s stuff that’s just not right,” he said in a 2000 interview. “Anger can be constructive.” Lee’s films are heavy-handed, in-your-face; they shout and unsettle. Heavy-handedness usually makes for bad art, but Overstreet and Hornbeck show how the approach works for Lee.
Starting at 16:44, they focus on the satirical comedy-drama Bamboozled (2000), which joined the prestigious Criterion Collection just this March. (It’s also been the subject of much scholarly study across fields, one instance I’ve come across being an essay by art theorist W. J. T. Mitchell, titled “Living Color: Race, Stereotype, and Animation in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled,” in What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images.) “Under pressure to help revive his network’s low rating, television writer Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) hits on an explosively offensive idea: bringing back blackface with The New Millennium Minstrel Show. The white network executives love it, and so do audiences, forcing Pierre and his collaborators to confront their public’s insatiable appetite for dehumanizing stereotypes.”
From 25:54 onward, Overstreet and Hornbeck discuss more generally their passion for cinema and the importance of revisiting films.
People have been expressing frustration that The Help, a civil rights era drama that sidelines the perspectives of its black characters, is the number one most-streamed movie on Netflix right now. Film critic Alissa Wilkinson gives a list of fifteen movies to watch instead on racial injustice and being black in America. A mix of dramas and documentaries by such filmmakers as Barry Jenkins, Ava DuVernay, Spike Lee, and others, these are black-centered stories that help illuminate where we’re at right now. All are available for online streaming, and Wilkinson provides links to her reviews.