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).

Holy Saturday: Keening

All four canonical Gospel accounts of the retrieval of Jesus’s body from the cross and its entombment are very matter-of-fact. There is no mention of grieving. The focus is on the roles of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, though Matthew and Mark mention two Marys being present (Matt. 27:61; Mark 15:47), and Luke refers generically to “the women who had come with him from Galilee” (Luke 23:55). Mark and Luke also mention the women preparing and, after the Sabbath, returning with burial spices (Mark 16:1; Luke 23:56–24:1).

Leave it to the artists, poets, and composers to inject some emotion into these undeniably wrenching moments! Of carrying the corpse of a loved one, cleaning it, dressing it, and saying goodbye as it’s put into the earth. There is an enormous number of paintings, sculptures, music, and literary texts composed over the centuries to aid Christians in meditating on the dead Christ and vicariously lamenting with those present, especially the Virgin Mary.

After Mary and the others laid Jesus to rest on Friday, their mourning continued, I’m sure, into Saturday. They were utterly bereft.

LOOK: Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish, 1577–1640), The Entombment, ca. 1612. Oil on canvas, 51 5/8 × 51 1/4 in. (131.1 × 130.2 cm). J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

The Flemish Baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens painted scenes of the lamentation of Christ many times. I saw this one in person at the Getty a few years ago, and it really drew me in. It shows Saint John and the Virgin Mary supporting Jesus’s body as they lay him down onto a stone slab. Mary Magdalene weeps from behind, and another, older Mary, the mother of James the Younger and Joseph (Matt. 27:56; Mark 15:40), gingerly lifts his wounded hand, fixing her sorrow there.

Rubens does not shy away from the ugliness of death, showing Jesus’s eyes rolled back in his head, his lips blue, and blood caked in his hair and dried up around the gaping laceration in his side. His whole body is pale with death, his skin green-tinged, in contrast to John’s ruddy complexion; his mother wears the same deathly pallor. Her eyes are red and puffy, and she looks up to the heavens as if to question why, or to petition God for strength.

The wheat that Jesus lies on alludes to the straw he was bedded in as a newborn and to the bread of the Eucharist on the altar. Christ’s body is given as a holy offering for the sins of the world.

LISTEN: “Song of Keening” by Áine Minogue, on Celtic Lamentations: Healing Music for Twelve Months and a Day (2005)

Áine Minogue is an award-winning Irish harpist, singer, arranger, and composer, now living in the Boston area. She plays and sings a mix of traditional tunes and original songs, most with Gaelic lyrics. “Song of Keening” wasn’t written explicitly for Holy Week, but it is a funeral lament that uses non-word utterances to express grief. Minogue writes,

In old Ireland, the practice of keening provided a physical and emotional release for those who grieved. Sometimes, keening was a direct emotional response to loss, practiced by both men and women, though particularly by women who had lost young children—a common occurrence in the past, when child mortality rates were significantly higher.

However, often a professional keener was hired by a family as a way of honoring the dead. These professional mourners were always women, and their keening was more stylized, taking the form of an improvisation based on particular structures and handed-down phrases. Though practiced in diverse cultures from Ireland to Greece, keening was generally frowned upon by church authorities, and treated with disdain by those who embraced the trappings of modernity. The practice now has virtually died out.

This piece is improvised in the old style, using old structures and vocables.

Professional mourners (moirologists) were used in ancient Israel too, at least by those wealthy enough to afford them. There’s no indication that any were present at the death of Jesus. In art history the chief mourners at Jesus’s crucifixion and burial are his mother, Mary; John, to whose care Mary was entrusted; Mary Magdalene; and Jesus’s other female followers.

This song appears on the Art & Theology Holy Week Playlist.

Holy Week Playlist

There are hundreds of thousands of musical works, from a range of genres, inspired by Christ’s passion, especially his death on the cross, which, along with the resurrection, is the centerpiece of the Christian faith. I’ve curated just a sampling of these on Spotify, from across time periods and countries, to serve as an aural guide through the final week of Jesus’s life. The drama begins with Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a donkey, where he’s hailed with hosannas, and then continues with a last supper shared with his disciples, an agonized prayer in Gethsemane followed by betrayal and arrest, then, all in one day, multiple trials (religious and civil), conviction by mob, a public execution, and burial. Many of the playlist selections are narrative in character, while some have a more theological bent. My hope is that these pieces aid you in observing this most holy of weeks, walking with Christ through the shadows, taking in how “he himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds [we] have been healed” (1 Pet. 2:24).

To add the playlist to your account, open the Art & Theology Holy Week Playlist link, then click on the More (…) icon and select “Save to Library.”

Art & Theology Holy Week playlist (art by Odilon Redon)

[Playlist cover art: Odilon Redon, Christ, ca. 1895, charcoal, chalk, pastel, and pencil on paper, Museum of Modern Art, New York]

The playlist is a mixture of classical and popular (indie-folk, gospel) music. In this post I want to provide a little context for some of the pieces, by which I mainly mean translations of all the non-English lyrics. Because of what you see here, you might get the wrong impression that the list is almost entirely classical; actually, it’s only about half.

The opening track, “Herr, unser Herrscher” (Lord, Our Ruler), is a unique arrangement of the opening chorus from Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. John Passion, a Good Friday oratorio in German.

Herr, unser Herrscher, dessen Ruhm
In allen Landen herrlich ist!
  Zeig uns durch deine Passion,
  Daß du, der wahre Gottessohn,
  Zu aller Zeit,
  Auch in der größten Niedrigkeit,
  Verherrlicht worden bist!
Lord, our ruler, whose fame
In every land is glorious!
  Show us, through your passion,
  That you, the true Son of God,
  Through all time,
  Even in the greatest humiliation,
  Have become transfigured! [source]

Unique, because the Baroque choir and orchestra are accompanied by an ensemble of Gabonese musicians who contribute their own rhythmic profile, along with solo percussionists Sami Ateba from Cameroon and Naná Vasconcelos from Brazil. The recording, rereleased on the compilation album Babel (2008), is originally from Lambarena: Bach to Africa (1995), a collaboration between French composer and producer Hughes de Courson and Gabonese composer and guitarist Pierre Akendengué, synthesizing two disparate sound worlds. (“Bombé / Ruht wohl, ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine” is another highlight from the album. For weeks I debated whether to include it on this playlist—adding it, taking it off, adding it back again—ultimately deciding to leave it off, the reason being that it overlays Bach’s choral rondo with music and invocations to the dead from a Bwiti religious ritual. Though sonically compelling and worth listening to, I felt that it might impede some Christians’ ability to engage this list in a devotional way; so I opted for a traditional Western classical recording instead.)

Other selections from Bach’s St. John Passion are:

>> “Christus, der uns selig macht”

Christus, der uns selig macht,
Kein Bös’ hat begangen,
Der ward für uns in der Nacht
Als ein Dieb gefangen,
Geführt für gottlose Leut
Und fälschlich verklaget,
Verlacht, verhöhnt und verspeit,
Wie denn die Schrift saget.
Christ, who makes us blessed,
committed no evil deed,
for us he was taken in the night
like a thief,
led before godless people
and falsely accused,
scorned, shamed, and spat upon,
as the scripture says. [source]

>> “Petrus, der nicht denkt zurück”

Petrus, der nicht denkt zurück,
Seinen Gott verneinet,
Der doch auf ein' ernsten Blick
Bitterlichen weinet.
Jesu, blicke mich auch an,
Wenn ich nicht will büßen;
Wenn ich Böses hab getan,
Rühre mein Gewissen!
Peter, who did not recollect,
denied his God,
who yet after a serious glance
wept bitterly.
Jesus, look upon me also,
when I will not repent;
when I have done evil,
stir my conscience! [source]

>> “O große Lieb”

O große Lieb, O Lieb ohn alle Maße,
Die dich gebracht auf diese Marterstraße!
Ich lebte mit der Welt in Lust und Freuden,
Und du mußt leiden.
O great love, O love beyond measure,
that brought you to this path of martyrdom!
I lived with the world in delight and joy,
and you had to suffer. [source]

>> “Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine”

Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine,
Die ich nun weiter nicht beweine,
Ruht wohl und bringt auch mich zur Ruh!
Das Grab, so euch bestimmet ist
Und ferner keine Not umschließt,
Macht mir den Himmel auf und schließt die Hölle zu.
Rest well, you blessed limbs;
now I will no longer mourn you.
Rest well and bring me also to peace!
The grave that is allotted to you
and encloses no further suffering
opens heaven for me and closes off hell. [source]

For Bach’s St. Matthew Passion—one of the most celebrated works of classical sacred music ever written, right up there with Handel’s Messiah—I’ve drawn from the abridged English version (rather than the original German), translated by the Rev. Dr. John Troutbeck and performed in 1962 by the New York Philharmonic and Collegiate Chorale under the direction of Leonard Bernstein. I chose just a few pieces from it, not wishing to replicate the whole thing; as you can see, I tend to favor chorales over arias.

Continue reading “Holy Week Playlist”

Roundup: Pippy the Piano, “The Cobblestone Gospel,” and more

The Lent 2021 edition of the Daily Prayer Project prayerbook is now available, covering February 17–April 3. (I serve as curator.) The stunning cover image is Prayers of the People I by Meena Matocha, who works in charcoal, ashes, acrylic, and wax. You can purchase the booklet in either digital or physical format.

In the opening letter, Project Director Joel Littlepage writes, “Lent is a season that disturbs many people. Maybe that includes you. Among Protestant Christian communities that I have been a part of over the years, Lent can either be seen as a ‘graceless,’ ‘harsh,’ ‘legalistic’ part of the Christian year or, on the other hand, trivialized into a time to ‘pick something to give up,’ like a seasonal spiritual diet plan. Both these characterizations miss the mark.” He goes on to describe the bidirectionality of the Lenten journey: downward, as we are crucified with Christ, and upward, toward the victory of resurrection and new life. “It is a season to sense again the path of the Christian life.”

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NEW CHILDREN’S BOOK: Pippy the Piano and the Very Big Wave by Roger W. Lowther, illustrated by Sarah Dusek: My friend Roger Lowther [previously], director of Community Arts Tokyo and host of the Art Life Faith podcast, has written his first children’s book, which released in December. It’s inspired by the story of a church in Kamaishi, who after the 2011 tsunami found their beloved piano upside down and covered in mud and debris but, rather than discard it, decided to spend enormous amounts of time and money to restore it—a picture of God’s love for his precious creation, and the lengths he went to to demonstrate that love. Hollywood and Broadway actor Sean Davis reads the book in the video below. [Available on Amazon]

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EXHIBITION: The Cobblestone Gospel by Trygve Skogrand, Vår Frue Kirke (Our Lady Church), Trondheim, Norway, July 2020–April 2021: “An exhibition of collages of historic low-church art merged with photographs of our own contemporary surroundings. The essence of the works is the meeting. Between painting and photography, the mystical and the mundane, and how the meeting makes both worlds renewed and re-visibled.” The original advertising says the exhibition is open Mondays through Saturdays from 12 to 3 p.m., but I’m not sure whether COVID has changed that; you can contact the church here.

Skogrand, Trygve_Found
Trygve Skogrand (Norwegian, 1967–), Found, 2020. Collage / pigment print on paper.

Skogrand, Trygve_The Beloved
Trygve Skogrand (Norwegian, 1967–), The Beloved, 2020. Collage / pigment print on paper.

In October Skogrand described the impetus behind his work to Edge of Faith magazine:

When I was a child, I went to a Christmas party at our local church. At the end of the party, every child got a small bag of gifts to take home. In the bag: a pack of raisins, a small orange, some sweets – and a prayer card showing Jesus in paradise. Oh, how beautiful I thought the small prayer card was! Jesus and butterflies and a sunset and flowers AND a golden glittery border. A wonder of loveliness and holiness!

Move on twenty years. I was 30, had started working as an artist, and found the bible card again. I had changed, and the card too. Instead of seeing loveliness, I found the card rather sad. It looked to me as if Jesus was imprisoned in a dusty and suffocating make-believe paradise.

Then it struck me: What if I remove the paradise?

I have now been working with the merging of high and low historical Christian art with our contemporary surroundings for twenty years. For me, this process not only binds together what nowadays normally is shown as sundered but also re-actualizes the classical art and infuses the everyday, modern surroundings with holiness.

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MUSIC VIDEO: “Fear Thou Not” by Josh Garrels: This beautiful new setting of Isaiah 41:10 by Josh Garrels appears on Garrels’s 2020 album Peace to All Who Enter Here [previously]. “Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; [and] I will uphold [you] with the right hand of my righteousness” (KJV).

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SHORT FILM: A Colorized Snowball Fight from 1896 Shows Not Much Has Changed in the Art of Winter Warfare: This is pure joy! “A short clip, originally captured by Louis Lumière in 1896, documents a rowdy snowball fight [bataille de boules de neige] on the streets of Lyon, France. Thanks to Saint-Petersburg, Russia-based Dmitriy Badin, who used a combination of the open-source software DeOldify and his own specially designed algorithms to upscale and colorize the historic footage, the video of the winter pastime is incredibly clear, revealing facial features and details on garments.”