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).

The First One Hundred Years by Archibald Motley: A Racial Lament Painting

Archibald J. Motley Jr. (1891–1981) was one of the most important artists of the Harlem Renaissance. He’s best known for his paintings of urban Black culture, especially the Chicago jazz scene and other nightlife, and he was also a wonderful portraitist.

His final painting, however, shows none of the carefree conviviality that was characteristic of much of his work. On the contrary, it’s nightmarish. Begun in 1963 and reworked over the course of a decade, The First One Hundred Years: He Amongst You Who is Without Sin Shall Cast the First Stone: Forgive Them Father For They Know Not What They Do chronicles race relations in the United States from the Civil War to the civil rights era. It’s the most overtly political painting in Motley’s oeuvre, and once completed, he didn’t paint for the remaining nine years of his life.

Motley Jr., Archibald_The First One Hundred Years
Archibald J. Motley Jr. (American, 1891–1981), The First One Hundred Years: He Amongst You Who is Without Sin Shall Cast the First Stone: Forgive Them Father For They Know Not What They Do, 1963–72. Oil on canvas, 48 7/8 × 40 3/4 in. (124 × 103.5 cm). Collection of Mara Motley and Valerie Gerrard Browne. Image courtesy the Chicago History Museum, © Valerie Gerrard Browne (artist’s daughter-in-law).

The “one hundred years” in the title refers to the period since the Emancipation Proclamation took effect in 1863, changing the legal status of more than 3.5 million enslaved African Americans to “free.” The Civil War ended May 9, 1865, and slavery was officially abolished with the Thirteenth Amendment on December 18 of that year. But the legacy of that institution was still felt throughout the next century, in which Black people suffered disenfranchisement, segregation, lynchings, and a number of other injustices and terrors.

Motley visualizes the Black struggle for freedom and equality through symbols and vignettes.

At the top of the painting are the death masks of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Abraham Lincoln, all of whom were assassinated as they sought to advance the rights of African Americans.

Below King’s visage is a Confederate flag, hanging from the front porch of a crumbling Southern manse. The red is replicated in the blood running out the house’s downspout, a horned devil (who surveys the domain he’s claimed), the blood-drop cross insignia of a Ku Klux Klansman, and the tongue of a snarling police dog.

(Related posts: “Book Review: Beholding Christ and Christianity in African American Art; “MLK, Pippin, and the Holy Mountain”; Philip Evergood’s The New Lazarus)

At the bottom right a traditional African mask lies beside a human skull, alluding not only to physical death but also to the fragmentation or loss of cultural identity experienced by those who were abducted from their homeland and brought across the Atlantic to live in captivity, separated from their families and communities and ways of life and even given new names by their oppressors. This wound is also felt by the enslaved persons’ descendants, who are unable to trace their lineage.

Motley Jr., Archibald_The First One Hundred Years (detail)

Above this still life is a Black person on horseback, operating a plow right next to a coffin. Besides the obvious reference to plantation labor, the vignette also evokes the African American spiritual that goes, “Keep your hand on the plow, hold on”—a song of endurance through hardship.

In the center of the painting the Statue of Liberty stands in ironic contrast to a lynched man, the color of her freedom torch echoed in the burning cross of the KKK. Just behind this dead Black man who hangs from a tree is another dead man hanging from another tree: Jesus on the cross. (For more on how these two symbols mutually interpret each other, see theologian James H. Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree.) The hill of Calvary is the brightest part of the entire composition, which I imagine Motley, a practicing Catholic, intended to signify hope, enlightenment, and a call to repentance. The cross illuminates our sin and the love of God that compels us to love our neighbors. I will address this further, in relation to an MLK sermon, below.

Motley Jr., Archibald_The First One Hundred Years (detail)

In the shadow of the cross is a sea of protest and counterprotest signs. Alongside slogans like “We Want to Vote,” “Black Power,” and “We Shall Overcome” are swastikas, “America for Whites, Africa for Blacks,” and “Go home, niggers, and get your relief check.” To the left of this activity, a white police officer beats a Black man with a baton, and a fireman turns a high-pressure hose on Lady Justice. This vignette evokes the chilling news footage from May 1963, when Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor ordered the use of fire hoses and attack dogs on peaceful Black protesters, including children. The force of the jet streams ripped off boys’ shirts and pushed girls over the tops of cars. It was a physical assault on Black bodies and on justice itself.

Birmingham, Alabama, was, and still is, one of the most racially divided cities in the US, and in the 1960s it became a center of civil rights activism. From 1947 to 1965 it was the site of fifty racially motivated dynamite explosions, earning it the nickname “Bomingham.” The bombing that caught the most international attention was of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963. The blast killed four girls who were leaving Sunday school: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair. Motley alludes to this terrorist act with the stained glass window wherein the face of a white Jesus is blown out, as that’s actually what happened at Sixteenth Street Baptist. (“The absence of the face,” said James Baldwin, “is something of an achievement since we have been victimized so long by an alabaster Christ.”)

In the center foreground, emerging from the phantasmagoria, is another faceless figure, his form and features undefined. He’s a specter, really, walking toward us—or is it someone in a dream state? Motley mixes historical scenes of violence and terror with contemporary ones, showing how the ghosts of our nation’s past are still haunting us.

Scattered throughout the painting are animals that represent ill omens or evil: a bat, a vulture (who feeds on death), a black cat, a serpent, a scorpion (on the right, crawling across the door marked “1863”). The latter two call to mind Luke 10:19, where Jesus tells his disciples, “Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy . . .” A dove of peace, the only nonsinister animal presence, perches on the margins.

Church, listen up: we have the call and the power, in Christ(!), to tread on racism and every other evil that erects itself against the kingdom of God. Don’t let the Enemy have a stranglehold. Let us be active in confronting the evil of white supremacy and dismantling it—in our own hearts, our congregations, our government, and in all the other systems it operates in—so that the supremacy of Christ and his gospel of freedom and reconciliation can be made known.

Where Are We Today?

I encountered The First One Hundred Years through the 2015 retrospective Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist and have been sitting with the image ever since, thinking: What progress have we made? Do I recognize this scene? What will “The Next One Hundred Years” look like in America?

It’s been almost fifty years since Motley completed the painting, and blood still flows. Black people are still being lynched (Ahmaud Arbery, killed by white vigilantes while out on a jog, is one example). Some people and businesses are still flying their Confederate flags. And racist hate groups are as active as ever. Last October the Department of Homeland Security named white supremacist extremists the country’s number one domestic terrorism threat, a threat that came to fruition January 6 when a mob of radical Trump supporters, catalyzed by the president himself, stormed the Capitol equipped with climbing gear, riot helmets, shields, gas masks, bear spray, flex cuffs, lead pipes, and baseball bats, attempting to overturn the 2020 presidential election results by force. The insurrectionists erected a functional gallows and noose on the lawn and shouted and graffitied death threats. A Confederate battle flag was marched through the halls of Congress, as were other neo-Confederate, neo-Nazi, and nationalist symbols, along with crosses, the Christian flag, a “Jesus 2020” banner, “Make America Godly Again,” etc. (Christian nationalism, on flagrant display at the Capitol, has been widely and publicly denounced by American Christians these past four years, so I won’t get into it here.) The mob was a mishmash of different groups and individuals united around Trump’s claims of election fraud and trying to hold on to (white) power.

Law enforcement’s completely deficient planning for the white-led protest (and thus inability to properly respond when the protest turned into a siege) stood in stark contrast to the way Black Lives Matter protests in DC were handled last summer, with militarized officers at the ready, low-flying helicopters, and eight-foot-tall fences. Peaceful Black protesters in the streets were met with tear gas and rubber bullets, whereas January 6’s white protesters were able to invade the Capitol with little resistance.

Why the woeful lapse in security, despite clear intelligence that right-wing extremists would be gathering there the day Congress was convening to ratify Biden’s democratically won victory? Because despite the DHS’s recent Homeland Threat Assessment, white people are, in general, not perceived as dangerous; Black (and brown) people are. And because white people know the system works for them, those who stormed the Capitol felt empowered to do so with impunity. They weren’t scared of the police. They didn’t even try masking their identities; on the contrary, several posted photos and videos of their crimes online. After trespassing, assaulting police officers (one of whom died), and vandalizing and looting while federal legislators ran and hid in fear for their lives, the insurrectionists were gently told by President Trump to “Go home. We love you.” Only a few were detained. Investigations have since been launched and more and more arrests are being made. But I bring this all up to show just one recent instance of racial disparities in policing as well as the rise of white nationalist fervor, which are just two of the many symptoms that prove that America does indeed still have a race problem.

The Trump presidency has really brought white supremacy to the fore, forcing us to confront a national sin that perhaps we thought was mostly behind us. “Reckoning” is a word I’ve been seeing a lot. Activist and author Ibram X. Kendi says that if we can be thankful to Trump for anything, it’s this: “He has held up a mirror to American society, and it has reflected back a grotesque image that many people had until now refused to see: an image not just of the racism still coursing through the country, but also of the reflex to deny that reality.”

The Need for Enlightenment

The two subtitles of Motley’s painting are both quotations of Jesus, which together indict sin and ask God for mercy. “He amongst you who is without sin shall cast the first stone” (John 8:7) was spoken to pierce the consciences of a mob of religious elites who sought to stone a woman for adultery; it exposed their two-facedness, their eagerness to punish another’s sin but not to examine their own. Motley is thus urging viewers to confront the ways in which they themselves have violated God’s law, how they have said, by their words or actions (or inaction), that Black lives do not matter. Admit. Admitting sin, admitting that there’s a problem, is the first step in rooting it out.  

“Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34) was spoken by Jesus on the cross. As he hung dying, he prayed to God on behalf of his killers, recognizing in them a spiritual blindness. Forgiveness is a nuanced concept whose complexities I won’t discuss here, but Jesus’s prayer expresses his goodwill toward his enemies, a spirit of wanting to see them reconciled to God. Jesus recognized that even as sinners hurt people, they themselves are also hurting. They don’t even realize how their sin binds them and blinds them.

In a ca. 1962 sermon on this text, Martin Luther King describes his oppressors (and Jesus’s) as suffering from an “intellectual and moral blindness . . . an ill which man inflicts upon himself by his tragic misuse of freedom and his failure to use his mind to its fullest capacity. There is plenty information available if we consider it as serious a moral obligation to be intelligent as to be sincere. One day we will learn that the heart can never be totally right if the head is totally wrong.” King describes how slaveholders sought to rationalize their beliefs, drawing from “science,” history, and biblical interpretation, and segregationists were doing the same, ignoring all evidence that contradicted what they sincerely believed to be true. These days we’ve seen how those who benefit from white privilege seek to explain away racial inequalities or even simply refuse to believe they exist, because who wants to give up power? And of course they find online communities or curate social media feeds that bolster their view that everyone is treated equally in America, that skin color does not grant any unfair advantages, and so when another unarmed Black person is killed by police, they interpret it through the white lens of “Well, he must have been doing something wrong . . .”

Maybe as you read this very article you’re tensing up and want to tell me X, Y, and Z regarding why white privilege is a fallacy or how I’ve been taken in by a “liberal agenda,” or how my narrative of the recent event at the Capitol is completely off—it wasn’t an insurrection, and it had nothing to do with white supremacy, and those weren’t really Trump supporters (yes, I’ve actually heard people say that). Maybe you think it’s me who’s blind.

Motley Jr., Archibald_The First One Hundred Years (detail)

King talks about the need for enlightenment.

Light has come into the world. There is a voice crying through the vista of time calling men to walk in the light. Man’s earthly life will be reduced to a tragic cosmic elegy if he fails to heed this call. “This is the condemnation,” says John, “that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light.”

John’s saying, King says, is demonstrated vividly at the cross, which shows God at his best and humanity at its worst.

We must continue to see the Cross as a magnificent symbol of love conquering hate, and light overcoming darkness. But in the midst of this glowing affirmation, let us never forget that our Lord and Master was nailed to that Cross because of human blindness. Those who crucified him knew not what they did.

In what ways are we nailing Christ to the cross afresh, so to speak, unaware of what we’re doing? In what ways are we resisting the work of the Holy Spirit to expose sin, both personal and collective? In what ways are we closing our ears to the cries of our hurting Black brothers and sisters, and to the calls to action from those who are continuing King’s legacy of nonviolent resistance? I’m speaking to white American Christians in particular, here. We all want America to heal. But the sin of racism must be acknowledged and confessed, and repentance undertaken, before healing can proceed.

Repenting of sin is a foundational Christian practice; it’s in the church’s DNA. And yet with this particular issue, there’s been a lot of unwillingness among Christians to see and to act. These past four years have been for me a time of self-examination and also critical examination of the evangelical tradition I grew up in and which you might say I’m still a part of. In addition, I’ve spent a lot of time relearning history, locating my privilege, unlearning biases, rereading the Psalms and the Prophets, repenting, exploring more deeply the witness of the Black church and all-around diversifying the voices I listen to, and slowly (admittedly, hesitantly!) wading into the waters of civic engagement. I have a long way to go, to be sure, but I’m on the journey.

I see Motley’s painting as a lament for all the racial injustices perpetrated in the US but also a statement of hope, as the cross beckons us to persist in (or join) the freedom struggle. It’s a prayer that the scales would fall off the eyes of white America—that we would shed willful ignorance—and that people of all races would walk together not only in the light of “liberty and justice for all” but, as King preached, in the light and Spirit of Christ.

Roundup: The Crucifixion in modern art, “Lift Every Voice” ballet solo, and more

VISUAL MEDITATION: “Waking Up from Apathy,” on Philip Evergood’s The New Lazarus: My latest visual meditation for ArtWay has just been published. It’s on a crowded, noisy, garish painting that, honestly, is distressing to look at. And it’s supposed to be. Because it exposes what Martin Luther King Jr. called the triple evils of society: racism, militarism (war), and economic exploitation (aka extreme materialism, a systematic cause of poverty). Though Philip Evergood was not a Christian, he draws on Christian narrative and iconography, with the figures of Lazarus and Christ, to protest the cycles of violence that we need to rise out of before we self-destruct.

Evergood, Philip_The New Lazarus
Philip Evergood (American, 1901–1973), The New Lazarus, 1927–54. Oil and enamel on canvas mounted on wood, 148 × 237.2 cm. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

The see-nothing, hear-nothing, say-nothing figures in the background remind me of people today who insist that racism does not exist and therefore tune out the cries of Black Lives Matter, for instance. I’m implicated too by these symbols of willful ignorance, because I admit that I do not often care to question where my food, clothes, coffee, chocolate, and other conveniences come from, or how the businesses I regularly support with my dollars treat their employees.

Evergood was politically engaged in both his art and his life, espousing egalitarian ideals. He participated in strikes and demonstrations for workers’ rights and was jailed more than once and beaten by police. He was greatly influenced by Mexican muralism, and he embraced the label of “propaganda” for his art, acknowledging that he was trying persuade the public to join the cause of social justice. “He was a figurative painter when much of the art world placed greater value on abstraction,” writes the University of Kentucky Art Museum, “and he was a moralist when moralizing was not considered an option for serious painters.” Nevertheless, he had a successful career, and his work is in many major museum collections, including the Tate Gallery, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Hirshhorn Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

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PODCAST EPISODE: “How a ‘biblically illiterate’ generation can discover Christian art,” Holy Smoke, July 28, 2020: I love hearing Ben Quash [previously] discuss specific artworks in detail! He brings such reverence, inquiry, wonder, curiosity, and openness to his looking and interpreting. For this interview with Carmel Thompson he has selected six Christ images spanning the early Renaissance through contemporary eras: the side-by-side Byzantine-inspired Healing of the Man Born Blind and Transfiguration panels of the Maestà Altarpiece by Duccio, the classically beautiful Descent from the Cross by Rogier van der Weyden at the Prado (“probably the painting that put realistic tears on the map of Western art”), Albrecht Dürer’s daring self-portrait as Christ, a homely Christ in the Wilderness: Consider the Lilies by Stanley Spencer, a grotesque Crucifixion by F. N. Souza (with reference to crucifixions by Grünewald, Picasso, Sutherland, and Bacon), and Michael Landy’s kinetic sculpture Doubting Thomas.

In addition to providing individual commentaries, Quash also talks about reading art theologically instead of just aesthetically, art as developing physical sight toward spiritual insight (external and internal seeing), the persistence of Christian iconography in the art of today, and the ways in which art can implicate the viewer.

Weyden, Rogier van der_Descent from the Cross
Rogier van der Weyden (Netherlandish, 1399–1464), Descent from the Cross, before 1443. Oil on panel, 204.5 × 261.5 cm. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.

Crucifixion by F. N. Souza
F. N. Souza (Indian, 1924–2002), Crucifixion, 1959. Oil on board, 183.1 × 122 cm. Tate Modern, London.

There’s so much that’s quotable in the conversation, but because it applies to the ArtWay meditation I linked to above, I’ll just highlight part of his discussion of nonreligious artists’ attraction to Crucifixion imagery in the twentieth century. The Isenheim Altarpiece (1515), he says, a visual reference point for many modern artists,

shows an agonized Christ whose tongue is swollen and protruding from his mouth, whose body is covered in sores, whose skin is tinged green, whose fingers are curled up in agony. There’s no idealization here of what a death like that might have been. Instead there’s a strong assertion that the extremes of human pain and suffering are not alien to the Christian message. And yet it’s a religious image—this is a Christian image painted for a Christian context.

When that work comes into contact with the new traumas of the twentieth century—we talked about [Stanley] Spencer and the Second World War, here [Francis Newton] Souza experiencing colonialism in India—when that painting comes into contact with those sorts of extremes of human experience, it activates, it speaks to them, and calls forth new artistic responses, because it feels as though Christianity can still speak, even in those extremes. And I think Souza, like [Graham] Sutherland and [Francis] Bacon, while they may not have felt comfortable with traditional Christianity, saw the power of that Christian tradition to in some way help them articulate the traumas and the horrors of their own time.

So that’s a very interesting work, and typical of several examples of the extraordinary way in which we might think we’re in a secular age, but Christian iconography is probably as lively as ever—although it’s doing new things—in the work of modern and contemporary artists.

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SONGS . . .

from the GOOD SHEPHERD COLLECTIVE: Spearheaded by David Gungor and Tyler Chester, the Good Shepherd Collective [previously] “creates liturgical art to inspire the Christian imagination, that we may embody the love of Christ for the good of our neighbors.” They’ve just released an album of ten hymns. One of them is “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” queued up in the liturgical service video below, and though it didn’t make the final album cut, I also really like their version of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.”

from Family Company: Charles Jones, the lead singer on both of the above videos, is also a part of Family Company, an LA-based music collective celebrating the traditions of soul, blues, and R&B. You might enjoy these seventies covers of theirs: “Heaven Help Us All” (popularized by Stevie Wonder), featuring Charles Jones, and “Let Us Love” by Bill Withers, featuring Teddy Grossman. See more on their YouTube channel.

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BALLET SOLO: “Lift Every Voice and Sing”: Premiering at the Lincoln Center in 2019, Ounce of Faith is a contemporary ballet choreographed by Darrell Grand Moultrie, the score a mix of jazz standards, original music, and spoken word. This excerpt is performed by Khalia Campbell of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, with movements suggestive of both struggle and pride.

Known as the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was written in 1899 by writer and activist James Weldon Johnson and set to music by his brother, John Rosamond Johnson. The hymn is sung here, just the first of its three verses, by Aisha Jackson, with Dante Hawkins on piano. It’s a song of historical remembrance and lament but also of hope, a rallying cry to move forward together, in unity, out of our “dark past,” into the truth of God, continuing to fight injustice wherever we find it so that everyone can live free. It acknowledges that God is the one who leads his people in love and who wills liberty, and it supplicates: “Keep us forever in the path [of Your light], we pray.” Learn more about the hymn in this NPR feature. See also this UMC Discipleship article, especially the part where Dr. James Abbington, a choir director and a scholar of African American sacred music, answers the question, “Is this a hymn just for African Americans or is it for all people?”

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LITERARY ESSAY: “To Sit with an Onion” by Elizabeth Harwell: God “is tethered to this world in delight” and does not weary of it as we do, writes Elizabeth Harwell after having sat with a mussel shell for one hour, upon the advice of Robert Farrar Capon. (An exercise in wonder! Any inanimate object will do.) Harwell marvels at how the shell—blueberry-blue and milk-white, cold, curvaceous, smooth—was “an entire world to the mussel who called [it] home,” and now, since she picked it up off a Maine beach, it sits in a silver dish in her dining room, a reminder of the Creator’s quiet mirth. And there’s much more where that came from. “That shell represented one of thousands (millions?) of pearly homes that will never lay bare in front of human eyes—miles of ocean floor, covered in secret delights, that began as thoughts in my Father’s mind. We humans can be so self-important that we’ve never considered that God is enjoying parts of creation that none of us will ever see.” Read the whole essay at The Rabbit Room.

(Quash’s discussion of Stanley Spencer’s Wilderness series in the abovementioned podcast, in which Christ gets down on the ground like a curious child to observe wildflowers, scorpion, hen, dovetails nicely with this essay!)

Balm in Gilead (Artful Devotion)

Hirsch, Joseph_Lynch Family
Joseph Hirsch (American, 1910–1981), Lynch Family, 1946. Oil on canvas, 35 × 33 in. (88.9 × 83.8 cm). Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. [zoom in]

My joy is gone; grief is upon me;
my heart is sick within me.
Behold, the cry of the daughter of my people
from the length and breadth of the land:
“Is the Lord not in Zion?
Is her King not in her?”
. . .
“The harvest is past, the summer is ended,
and we are not saved.”
For the wound of the daughter of my people is my heart wounded;
I mourn, and dismay has taken hold on me.

Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of the daughter of my people
not been restored?

—Jeremiah 8:18–22

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SONG: “There Is a Balm in Gilead” | Negro spiritual | Arranged and performed by Archie Shepp (tenor sax), feat. Jeanne Lee, on Blasé (1969, reissued 2009)

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In this coming Sunday’s lectionary reading from the Prophets, Jeremiah grieves over the suffering of his people. “Is there no balm in Gilead?” he cries. Gilead was a region in ancient Palestine, east of the Jordan River. Now it is known primarily as the fictional locale of two famous contemporary novels, but back then it was known for the soothing, aromatic plant resins produced there, which were used medicinally. In Israel’s desolation, though, they could feel no balm—not even in the place where it was said to abound.

The anonymous writer(s) of the slave song featured above knew communal suffering well. He or she taps into Jeremiah’s poetic grief, extracting the “balm in Gilead” expression but bending it toward hope. There is a balm, the song attests, albeit wearily, through tears. And this balm makes the wounded whole. Archie Shepp’s soulful arrangement, with vocals by Jeanne Lee, express that woundedness and yearning for deliverance so poignantly.

As a visual point of focus, I’ve chosen Joseph Hirsch’s Lynch Family, a forward extension of the history of African American oppression. The gallery label for the painting reads,

Joseph Hirsch painted Lynch Family as a response to racial disturbances in the South in 1946. That year the number of lynchings rose from an all-time low in January to a fevered pitch by August. Citizens across the country urged President Truman and Congress to end the horrors. To capture the tragedy of Lynch Family, Hirsch presented a mother with her baby, presumably survivors of a lynching victim, in abstracted surroundings. The painting focuses on the mother’s intense yet restrained hold on her defiant child while she turns to hide her anguish. The blue background floats around the figures. It both highlights their pain and contrasts with the sheer beauty of Hirsch’s painterly technique.

Though painted in the 1940s, this work bears strong relevance for today. The figures could be any black mother and child left to grieve the loss of husband and father—to prison, or to death by shooting, choking, or other form of brutality.

For another painting by Hirsch from the blog, see “Stations of the Cross at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.”


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To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 20, cycle C, click here.

Roundup: Rock Hall inductions; James Cone; lynching memorial; “Christ in Alabama”

NEW ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAMERS:

Last month Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915–1973), one of the few female guitar evangelists of the ’30s and ’40s and the first gospel superstar, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She was named an “Early Influence” for her electric sound and original guitar picking, which influenced the likes of Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, and Johnny Cash, among many others. (“Tharpe’s unique guitar style blended melody-driven urban blues with traditional folk arrangements and incorporated a pulsating swing sound that is one of the first clear precursors of rock and roll.”) Performing (controversially) both sacred and secular music, in churches and nightclubs, Tharpe collaborated with heavy-hitting artists of the time, including Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and the Dixie Hummingbirds, and she even hired a white group, the Jordanaires, to sing backup during one of her tours.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Photo: Chris Ware/Getty Images

Two of Tharpe’s best-known songs are her versions of the Negro spirituals “Up Above My Head” and “Strange Things Happening Everyday,” but probably my two favorites of hers are “Use Me” and “Two Loaves of Fishes and Five Loaves of Bread”:

In 2011 BBC Four premiered Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock and Roll, a documentary written and directed by UK filmmaker Mick Csaky. Its US television premiere was in 2013, part of PBS’s American Masters series. Watch the trailer below, or watch the full documentary online.

If you’re not familiar with Tharpe, you need to be! My husband and I cycle through dozens of her songs regularly on our customized Spotify gospel playlist. If you enjoy the documentary and want to learn more, check out the biography Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe by Gayle Wald.

Another April Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, who’s more of a household name, is Nina Simone (1933–2003). One of her most famous songs (certainly her most sampled) is “Sinnerman,” a Negro spiritual inspired by Revelation 6:12–17:

When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”

When Simone (then Eunice Waymon) was a young girl, her mother, a Methodist minister, had her play the song on the piano at revival and prayer meetings as a means of compelling sinners to the altar. (Before pursuing her career as a singer and recording artist, she wanted to be a classical concert pianist. She plays the piano on “Sinnerman” and many other tracks.) Because she recorded her version of “Sinnerman” at the height of her civil rights activism, in 1965, some have speculated that the song is a veiled condemnation of the sins of white America.   Continue reading “Roundup: Rock Hall inductions; James Cone; lynching memorial; “Christ in Alabama””