Then the angel of God who was going before the host of Israel moved and went behind them, and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them, coming between the host of Egypt and the host of Israel. And there was the cloud and the darkness. And it lit up the night without one coming near the other all night.
Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. And the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry ground, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left. The Egyptians pursued and went in after them into the midst of the sea, all Pharaoh’s horses, his chariots, and his horsemen. And in the morning watch the LORD in the pillar of fire and of cloud looked down on the Egyptian forces and threw the Egyptian forces into a panic, clogging their chariot wheels so that they drove heavily. And the Egyptians said, “Let us flee from before Israel, for the LORD fights for them against the Egyptians.”
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots, and upon their horsemen.” So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the sea returned to its normal course when the morning appeared. And as the Egyptians fled into it, the LORD threw the Egyptians into the midst of the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the horsemen; of all the host of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea, not one of them remained. But the people of Israel walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left.
Thus the LORD saved Israel that day from the hand of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great power that the LORD used against the Egyptians, so the people feared the LORD, and they believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses.
SONG: “Wade in the Water,” African American spiritual
There have been many, many performances of this song over the years. For a nice, concise history of recordings, from gospel and doowop and choral to modern jazz, R&B, heavy rock, and northern soul, see this article by Mike Hobart. Below is a handful I’ve found and enjoy.
A gospel version by Brother John Sellers from 1959, driven by piano:
A choral arrangement by Paul T. Kwami, performed by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 2019 (the soloist isn’t credited, but she’s amazing!):
Pegasis is a vocal trio of sisters from the Dominican Republic, formerly performing under the name The Peguero Sisters. Here they’re accompanied by guitar and shaker (this is the YouTube version, but the harmonies are cleaner on their 2016 album recording):
The Petersens apply their signature bluegrass stylings in their rendition, performed a few weeks ago in this video but also on their 2019 album Homesick for a Country:
According to oral lore, Harriet Tubman used the song “Wade in the Water” to communicate strategy to slaves traveling the Underground Railroad: its coded language alerted freedom seekers that bounty hunters were on their trail with bloodhounds and that they should jump into the river so that the dogs couldn’t track their scent. This popular myth about the song has not been confirmed, and the National Park Service, which preserves historical sites associated with the Underground Railroad and promotes research on the topic, suggests that it’s probably not true.
It is known, however, that it was sung at river baptisms, and still is, as the Exodus is seen as an archetype of baptism, of redemption through water. Not only that, but the song also draws on the pool of Bethesda passage in John 5, where people gathered to be healed: “For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had” (v. 4). (This verse is found in some early New Testament manuscripts but not the earliest and is therefore omitted from several modern translations.)
In the documentary God’s Greatest Hits, pastor and gospel recording artist Wintley Phipps says, “‘Wade in the Water,’ to me, . . . means people who are afraid of moving forward, progressing, taking a step, and facing uncertainty—go ahead, wade in the water. Take that step. As terrifying as it may seem at that very moment, it’s gonna be alright, and the miracle we seek is gonna happen.”
There’s the famous song “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Well, in Exodus, God carves out a bridge through troubled water! Imagine walls of water standing multiple stories high on either side of you, filled with tiger sharks and other marine life. And you have to cross the sandy bottom in faith that those walls will hold up until you reach the other side.
“Wade in the Water” affirms that God is going to stir things up; he’s going to do something big. Just like he did when he brought Israel up out of Egypt.
Maggi Hambling is one of Britain’s most significant painters and sculptors. Her nine “Walls of Water” paintings were made in 2010–11 and were first exhibited in 2014 at the National Gallery in London. Vast, intense, and energetic, they were inspired by her experience of giant waves crashing onto the seawall at Southwold, Suffolk, where she lives. “Through turbulence and exuberant colour, Hambling continues to affirm painting’s immediacy, saying, ‘The crucial thing that only painting can do is to make you feel as if you’re there while it’s being created – as if it’s happening in front of you’” (source).
View other paintings from the series at Artsy.net.
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 19, cycle A, click here.
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.
Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised,
and his greatness is unsearchable.
One generation shall commend your works to another,
and shall declare your mighty acts.
On the glorious splendor of your majesty,
and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.
Young Harriet Tubman (born Araminta Ross) was shaped, among other things, by stories of the mighty acts of God in history, especially his bringing his people into freedom. Her parents, who were devout Methodists, and others in her Maryland slave community fired her imagination with stories of the Red Sea crossing, Pharaoh overthrown, and a land flowing with milk and honey. Harriet craved that kind of freedom for her people and, as we all know, later led many into it.
In the 1960s, Windmill Books founder Robert Kraus commissioned the famous New York artist Jacob Lawrence to paint a series of pictures on any subject in American history to serve as the basis of a new children’s book. Lawrence chose Harriet Tubman (whom he had also painted a series on in 1939–40, The Life of Harriet Tubman [previously]). After Lawrence completed seventeen new paintings, Kraus wrote rhymed verse to go along with them, and the book was published in 1968 as Harriet and the Promised Land. (It was reissued in 1993 by Simon and Schuster; Kraus’s contribution is uncredited by choice in both editions.) It was the first children’s book to be reviewed in the Art section of the New York Times. The book emphasizes Harriet’s faith in God and his provision along the Underground Railroad, and Harriet’s role as a Moses figure.
Jacob Lawrence is one of my favorite artists, and I particularly love this painting of his that shows little Harriet sitting on a rock in rapt attention as an elder woman gives a performative telling of the biblical exodus story, recounting in detail how God brought his children up out of Egypt. In this nighttime scene, abnormally large bugs creep around on leaf and ground as the North Star shines bright above, a light that beckons and that will come to guide Harriet and others in a nineteenth-century exodus. Kraus’s text for the painting reads,
Harriet, hear tell
About “The Promised Land”:
How Moses led the slaves
Over Egypt’s sand.
How Pharaoh’s heart
Was hard as stone,
How the Lord told Moses
He was not alone.
Arabella Katherine Hankey (1834–1911) was a contemporary of Harriet Tubman’s (ca. 1822–1913), but she grew up in a much different context, as the (white) daughter of a wealthy English banker. Her family, though, used their wealth and influence to serve others. Her father, Thomas Hankey, was a leading member of the Clapham Sect, a group of evangelical Anglican social reformers whose avid campaigning, in society and in Parliament, led to the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833. Though the group was waning as Kate was growing up, social justice (alongside personal conversion) remained a key aspect of the gospel her parents taught her, which impelled her to embark on ministry to young female factory workers in London, teaching them the Bible and, I presume, advocating for better working conditions, as her father had a generation earlier.
In her early thirties, a serious illness left Kate bedridden for a year. During her convalescence she wrote a long poem in two parts that she called “The Old, Old Story,” which tells the story of redemption, from the Garden of Eden to Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection to the Spirit’s outpouring, in fifty-five quatrains. “I Love to Tell the Story,” as well as her other famous hymn, “Tell Me the Old, Old, Story,” are derived from this longer work.
I like the paradox of “old” and “new” in Kate’s hymn, underscoring the enduring relevance and impact of Jesus’s self-giving. His sacrifice for sin was planned since the foundation of the world and accomplished in first-century Palestine but continues to resound anew today as it’s received into countless hearts and lives. It reminds me of Augustine’s famous exclamation to God in his Confessions: “O Beauty so ancient and so new!”
“I Love to Tell the Story” features in the 1997 movie The Apostle, starring Robert Duvall as a charismatic preacher, with many flaws, who starts a church in the Louisiana bayou. Jeffrey Overstreet writes that it “may be the most unapologetic, intimate portrayal of a religious man in the history of American cinema.” Duvall wrote, directed, and, since Hollywood wasn’t interested, produced the movie himself. He said it was important to him to show Sonny as a complex character with a genuine faith rather than as a caricature of southern Christianity.
Sunday’s reading from Psalm 145 celebrates the “wondrous works” of God, told down through the ages. Whether it’s God’s work through Moses or Harriet or the Clapham abolitionists to bring people out of literal enslavement, or God’s salvation of an individual soul from the bondage of sin, these are wonders to proclaim, stories that are part of God’s story, that we should love to tell.