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: Christianity in Africa, Zwingli’s plague hymn, biblical art database, and more

VISUAL MEDITATION: “At the Whipping Post” by Victoria Emily Jones: Last year the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP) ran a major retrospective on Djanira da Motta e Silva, “a central artist in Brazilian mid-century modernism” (Rodrigo Moura). ArtWay’s editor asked me to choose a painting of hers to write about—I chose the one she submitted to the 1955 “Christ of Color” contest, showing Jesus as an enslaved African being scourged in the historic center of Salvador de Bahia, the first colonial capital of Brazil.

Djanira_Largo do Pelourinho, Salvador
Djanira da Motta e Silva (Brazilian, 1914–1979), Largo do Pelourinho, Salvador, or Cristo na coluna (Christ at the Column), 1955. Oil on canvas, 81 × 115 cm. Private collection, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo: Jaime Acioli.

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LECTURE: “Is Christianity a White Man’s Religion?” by Dr. Vince L. Bantu: I first encountered Vince Bantu in a Conversing (Fuller Studio) podcast episode on African American identity and the church. (He joined the Fuller faculty last year as assistant professor of church history and Black church studies.) In this video from January 2018, he returns to his alma mater, Wheaton College, to discuss the history of Christianity in Africa—which some people are surprised to learn predates colonialism. “To study ancient African history is to study Christianity. They go together,” he says. “If you want to study Ethiopian literature, . . . you’re going to be reading a whole bunch of Christian literature. Same thing in Nubian. Same thing in Coptic.” While the Anglo-Saxons were still worshipping Odin and Thor, Bantu says, Black Africans were building churches, establishing seminaries, and writing Christian theological treatises!

The talk starts at 11:34 and really kicks into gear at around 24:00. Q&A starts at 52:40 and includes discussion of a three-point spectrum of approaches to culture, mission as “cultural sanctification,” and internalized theological racism. Take note of Bantu’s response, at 1:09:35, to the question “What do we do with this information?”

“Christianity is and always has been a global religion,” Bantu reminds us. Unfortunately, people tend to associate it most with western Europe. That’s because Rome, the dominant culture for some time, essentially said, “Christianity belongs to us,” instituting a theological hegemony. The West proclaimed itself the guardian of the Christian faith, declaring heretical churches in other regions that didn’t express theology the same way they did, with no regard for differences in language and philosophical frameworks.

I appreciate how Bantu teaches Christian history in part through art and architecture, which are material witnesses to the faith and sometimes even modes of theology. He shows photos of churches and monasteries and their interior decoration. Most fascinating to me is a tenth-century wall painting he photographed at the Great Monastery of Saint Anthony in Old Dongola (present-day Sudan), a Nativity scene that shows Africans wearing animal crest masks and worshipping Christ with traditional instruments. (You can view some photos here. See also The Wall Paintings from the Monastery on Kom H in Dongola by Malgorzata Martens-Czarnecka, or the freely accessible essay by the same author, “The Christian Nubia and the Arabs.”)

Bantu is the author of A Multitude of Peoples: Engaging Ancient Christianity’s Global Identity from IVP Academic and the editor of Gospel Haymanot: A Constructive Theology and Critical Reflection on African and Diasporic Christianity, both released this year.

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SONGS:

“Azim ast name To Isa”: Nora Kirkland from Iran performs this Christian praise song in Farsi, English, and Greek. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

Great is your name, Lord Jesus Christ
Praise to your name, Lord Jesus Christ
Power to your name, Lord Jesus Christ
Praise to your name, exalted Jesus Christ

Hallelujah, hallelujah
Hallelujah, hallelujah
Hallelujah, hallelujah
Praise to your name, exalted Jesus

“I Am Thine (Plague Hymn)”: Made especially timely by the current COVID-19 pandemic, this hymn text was written in 1519 by Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli while convalescing from the bubonic plague, having caught it ministering to others. This year Zac Hicks wrote a new melody for it, and it’s sung here by Leif Bondarenko. Released by Advent Birmingham.

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BIBLICAL ART DATABASE: Visual Midrash: “Visual Midrash is an online bilingual (Hebrew and English) collection of Bible art and commentary, sponsored by the TALI Education Fund in Israel. At present, the site contains more than 1100 art images relating to 33 different subjects from all three divisions of the Hebrew Bible – including such figures as Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, the women of the Book of Judges, the scrolls of Ruth and Esther and much more. Among the images are objects from the Ancient Near East; frescoes from the ancient synagogue of Dura Europos; medieval illuminated manuscripts; paintings, sculptures, lithographs, and nearly 100 other art media from Michelangelo to Rembrandt to Chagall to contemporary artists.” I’ve had fun browsing! Below is just a small sampling of images from the site.

Blake, William_Behemoth and Leviathan
William Blake (British, 1757–1827), Behold Now Behemoth, Which I Made With Thee (The Book of Job) (Linnell set), 1821. Watercolor, black ink, and graphite on off-white antique laid paper, 27.5 × 20 cm. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts. [HT]

Mordecai Ardon (Israeli, 1896–1992), Sarah, 1947. Oil on canvas, 138 × 108 cm. Jewish National and University Library, Jerusalem.

The Finding of Moses (Dura-Europos Synagogue)
“The Finding of Moses,” wall painting made in 244 CE, from Dura-Europos Synagogue in Syria. Preserved at the National Museum of Syria, Damascus. [HT]

Crossing the Red Sea (Alba Bible)
“Crossing of the Red Sea,” Spain, 1430. Illumination from the Alba Bible (fol. 68v–69r), Liria Palace, Madrid.

Jonah (Islamic)
“Jonah,” Iran, 1577. Illumination from the Qisas al Anbiya (Diez A Fol. 3, fol. 142v), Staatsbibliothek, Berlin. [HT]

Contemporary black artists at the Baltimore Museum of Art

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.

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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.

Ligon, Glenn_America America
Foreground: Glenn Ligon (American, 1960–), Untitled (America America), 2015. Neon and blackened steel, 22 × 125 × 10 in. each. Baltimore Museum of Art, Maryland, USA. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

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?”

Ligon, Glenn_America America

You can read Hughes’s full poem at Poets.org, but here are the first six stanzas and then one:

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.

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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.

Walker, Kara_Terrible Vacation
Kara Walker (American, 1969–), Terrible Vacation, 2014. Gouache on paper, 72 1/2 × 159 1/2 in. Baltimore Museum of Art, Maryland, USA.

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.

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On the left wall was a story quilt by Baltimore artist Stephen Towns [previously], one is a series paying tribute to Harriet Tubman.

Towns, Stephen_We Shall Pass through the Combahee.JPG
Stephen Towns (American, 1980–), We Shall Pass through the Combahee, 2019. Natural and synthetic fabric, nylon tulle, polyester and cotton thread, metallic thread, crystal glass beads, and resin and metal buttons. Baltimore Museum of Art, Maryland, USA. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

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:

To learn about another body of Towns’s work, A Path Between Two Continents, see this video by York College Galleries:

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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.

Baez, Firelei_May 19, 2017
Firelei Báez (Dominican American, 1981–), May 19, 2017, 6:05 p.m. (an idiom playing out its history), 2018. Oil, oil stick, and graphite on canvas, 92 × 120 in. Baltimore Museum of Art, Maryland, USA. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

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.

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Bey, Dawoud_Mathes Manafee and Cassandra Griffen
Dawoud Bey (American, 1953–), The Birmingham Project: Mathes Manafee and Cassandra Griffen, 2012. Inkjet prints, pigment-based, 40 × 32 in. each. Baltimore Museum of Art, Maryland, USA. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

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.

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Simmons, Gary_Triple Burn
Gary Simmons (American, 1964–), Triple Burn, 2003. Charcoal with smudging on paper, 66 3/4 × 110 1/4 in. Baltimore Museum of Art, Maryland, USA. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

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:

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How long is a chain?
How long is a change?
How heavy is a chain?
How heavy is a change?

—Melvin Edwards, 1970

Edwards, Melvin_Scales of Injustice
Melvin Edwards (American, 1937–), Scales of Injustice, 2017/2019. Barbed wire, chain, and steel. Baltimore Museum of Art, Maryland, USA. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

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, Melvin_Scales of Injustice (detail)

Edwards, Melvin_Scales of Injustice (detail)

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.

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Simpson, Lorna_Easy to Remember
Lorna Simpson (American, 1960–), Easy to Remember (still), 2001. 16 mm film transfered to DVD (black and white, sound); 2:35 min. Baltimore Museum of Art, Maryland, USA.

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.

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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.

Hammons, David_Traveling
David Hammons (American, 1943–), Traveling, 2001–2. Harlem dirt on paper and suitcase, 109 5/16 × 41 3/4 × 9 1/2 in. Baltimore Museum of Art, Maryland, USA. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

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.

Hammons, David_Traveling (detail)

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Like Stephen Towns, Amy Sherald lives in Baltimore. She is known for her large-scale portrait paintings that use grisaille to portray skin tones as a way of “challenging the concept of color-as-race,” and was chosen to paint the official portrait of First Lady Michelle Obama.

Sherald, Amy_Planes, rockets, and the spaces in between
Amy Sherald (American, 1973–), Planes, rockets, and the spaces in between, 2018. Oil on canvas, 100 × 67 in. Baltimore Museum of Art, Maryland, USA. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

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.

Read more of Sherald’s commentary on this painting in Ursula magazine.

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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.

https://artbma.org/
https://www.facebook.com/artbma
https://twitter.com/artbma
https://www.instagram.com/baltimoremuseumofart/

Walking the Via Dolorosa through Amsterdam (Part 2)

This is part two of my commentary on Art Stations of the Cross: Troubled Waters, a multisite exhibition in Amsterdam running from March 6 to April 22. (Read part one.) Unless otherwise noted, all photos are by Eric James Jones/ArtandTheology.org.

STATION 4. Ocean Eden by Lynn Aldrich is a whimsical coral reef assemblage made out of everyday household cleaning supplies—sponges, scrubbers, scouring pads, mop heads, brushes, plastic gloves, and plungers, a rich biodiversity. Sea urchins, sea anemones, starfish, and snails are among the animals evoked.

Ocean Eden by Lynn Aldrich
Lynn Aldrich (American, 1944–), Ocean Eden, 2008. Sponges, scrubbers, scouring pads, mop heads, brushes, rubber gloves, plungers, and wood, 234 × 168 × 61 cm.

Playful though it is, this bricolage of commercial products, arranged to represent an underwater ecosystem, creates a crass juxtaposition of natural and unnatural that makes the piece tragicomic. The subtext is ecological concern—in particular, for the endangerment of coral reefs. Let’s clean up our oceans, the work seems to say. The assignment of Ocean Eden to station 4, “Jesus meets his mother,” reinforces the traditional conception of nature as mother. Here we meet Mother Nature, who grieves our mistreatment of her.

Ocean Eden by Lynn Aldrich (detail)

Ocean Eden by Lynn Aldrich (detail)

Station 4 is sited at the Keizersgrachtkerk, a church built under the leadership of Abraham Kuyper just two years after the 1886 schism of the Dutch Reformed Church. (Kuyper led the conservative offshoot, the Doleantie.) Aldrich’s assemblage is visible from the street through the main glass entrance doors and so can be viewed even when the church is locked. Luckily, a staff member was there to let us in after hours through a side entrance, so we could see the work closer up. It’s located in a small lobby that dips between stairwells on either side.

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STATION 5. Next on the route is the Amsterdam Museum, whose building complex served from 1580 to 1960 as Burgerweeshuis, the city orphanage. Before that it was a monastery. To mark this change of function, a large entrance gate was built in 1581 off the Kalverstraat, which, as Marleen pointed out to me, features a relief sculpture of a group of orphans gathered around the Holy Spirit, entreating passersby for help:

Wy groeien vast in tal en last. Ons tweede vaders klagen
Ay ga niet voort door dese poort, of help een luttel dragen.

We grow steadily in number and burden. Our second fathers ask with heavy hearts:
“Do not go forth through this gate without helping us a little in our care.”

Orphanage relief sculpture
Relief sculpture by Joost Jansz Bilhamer (Dutch, 1541–1590), above the entrance to the courtyard of the former City Orphanage of Amsterdam. Address: Sint Luciensteeg 27. The inscription is by the Dutch poet Joost van den Vondel. The paint colors, which are not original, seem to me a bit gaudy; to view the sculpture in its pre-restoration state, click here.

Their “second fathers” are, of course, their new caretakers, who run the orphanage. These children are asking for someone to help them carry their burden (poverty, hunger, sickness, lack of education, lack of prospects for the future, feelings of abandonment, longing for love, etc.), which the fathers are helping to shoulder but who can do only so much with their limited power. This sixteenth-century sculpture and inscription resonate with the fifth station of the cross, “Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry his cross.”

But this is only supplementary to the main artwork we’ve come to see: Out of History by Iris Kensmil, located in the Schuttersgalerij (Civic Guards Gallery). Part of the Amsterdam Museum, this gallery is a covered passageway that visitors can enter for free, featuring portraits of Dutch citizens through the centuries. (Admission to the rest of the museum is €15.)

Out of History by Iris Kensmil
Iris Kensmil (Dutch, 1970–), Out of History, 2013. Triptych, oil on canvas, 105 × 465 cm.

An artist of Surinamese descent committed to highlighting black contributions to Dutch history, Iris Kensmil was commissioned by the Amsterdam Museum in 2013 to create a new work to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the Netherlands. (The Netherlands was a major player in the transatlantic slave trade from the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries.) She chose to depict three strong black figures from eighteenth-century Surinam (a former Dutch colony in the Guianas) who rose above colonial oppression to secure a position and a future for themselves.

The left panel of this triptych shows Elisabeth Samson (1715–1777), who, through her business acumen, became one of the richest women in Surinam. After this socioeconomic rise, she then successfully petitioned the Dutch government to be allowed to marry a white man, and became the first black woman in Surinam to do so; this consolidated her power. But despite overcoming huge obstacles, Elisabeth’s legacy is somewhat controversial because she amassed and maintained her wealth the same way the rest of the Dutch of Surinam did at that time—through slavery. (She owned a coffee plantation and some forty slaves.) Hear Cynthia McLeod’s super-entertaining TedX talk about Elisabeth Samson, which is just fifteen minutes long. (I could listen to this woman teach me history all day long!)

Out of History by Iris Kensmil
Elisabeth Samson

The central panel of Out of History shows Wilhelmina Kelderman (1734–1836), about whom less is known. What we do know is that she was an enslaved woman from Surinam who purchased her own freedom and that of her son. I think that’s a moneybag she’s holding.  Continue reading “Walking the Via Dolorosa through Amsterdam (Part 2)”