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.
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.
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.)
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 . . .)
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.
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).
“Now therefore fear the LORD and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.”
In this excerpt from Sunday’s lection, Joshua, Moses’s successor, admonishes the people of Israel to serve the one true God, Yahweh, but if they don’t, to choose between their ancestral gods from Mesopotamia or the gods worshipped by the peoples of Canaan, whose land they have taken over. Joshua unequivocally states his own allegiance to Yahweh, who had proven himself faithful to his promises.
Joshua’s imperative may seem irrelevant to life today, but it could actually be extrapolated to apply even to those who are not theistic, because all humans are worshipping beings. Those who don’t worship a god or gods, as the word is conventionally conceived, are giving their ultimate love and devotion to someone or something else, be it power, money, popularity or fame, intellect, a career, a political party, a social cause, a sports team, television, social media following, physical attractiveness or fitness, a romantic partner, a child, or what have you. The American writer David Foster Wallace, who was not a Christian (that I’m aware of) but who had a spiritual sensibility, spoke incisively about this in his “This Is Water” commencement speech, delivered at Kenyon College on May 21, 2005. He said,
In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things—if they are where you tap real meaning in life—then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. . . . Worship power—you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart—you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.
Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation.
In his book Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters, Tim Keller says that idols (false gods) are usually good things that we turn into ultimate things: “anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give, . . . anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living” (xvii–xviii). He identifies some idols that Christians may be unlikely to consider as such, including doctrinal accuracy, ministry success, and moral rectitude.
Who or what do you live for? Where do you place your primary identity? How do you define your worth?
“Gotta Serve Somebody” is the first song Bob Dylan released after his conversion to Christianity in the late seventies. (It came out as a single before appearing on Slow Train Coming.) In it he lists various occupational titles—rock musician, businessman, doctor, athlete, ambassador, police officer, homebuilder, politician, barber, preacher, etc.—and other roles, saying that all, rich and poor, are “gonna have to serve somebody, yes / You’re gonna have to serve somebody / Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord / But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” As in Sunday’s lectionary passage from Joshua, and as in David Foster Wallace’s famous speech, Dylan suggests that the choice to not worship God is in itself a choice to worship something/someone else in God’s place. Some atheists are at least honest enough to recognize that they worship themselves—like John Lennon, who wrote “Serve Yourself” as a riposte to Dylan.
Dylan won a Grammy for Best Rock Vocal Performance by a Male for “Gotta Serve Somebody.” The song has been covered by many artists, including Mavis Staples, Etta James, Judy Collins, and Willie Nelson.
The gallery installation pictured above is by the late Cindy Jackson. It’s discussed extensively, along with her other art, in the article “Cindy Jackson’s Bevy of Boisterous Bodies” by Gordon Fuglie, published in issue 92 of Image journal. And Eric Minh Swenson has made a short film where he interviews the artist in her studio as she works on these pieces:
In (Not Quite) Salvation, six twice-life-size urethane sculptures of nude men, cast from the same mold but painted differently, form a sort of tunnel over a red carpet that leads to a “chapel.” Their supersize arms are extended outward in a state of—rapture? torment? dead stupor? The installation “explores the various ways redemption and meaning are sought in society,” says Jackson. “What we worship indicates how we hope to be saved from our suffering. What we yearn for are the symbols of our perceived exoneration.”
The first two in line, arranged opposite each other, are Beer Man, his body overlaid with Budweiser branding, and Tattoo Man, whose inked skin, an amalgamation of various signs and slogans, is a “critique of a lazy American pop pluralism run amok,” as Fuglie says. The next duo is Super Man, in all his muscly righteousness, and Sex Man, lusty and sporting a condom. The final pair is, on the left, Dogma Man, who is inscribed with words from various sacred texts, poems, and song lyrics—a “smorgasbord of pop spirituality.” And on the right, Money Man, who is papered over with (photocopies of) dollar bills.
“They have betrayed their true spiritual identity and are damaged souls,” Fuglie writes. “Jackson affirms this by inscribing a hopeful poetic aphorism, [attributed to] the Sufi mystic Rumi, on the invisible interior surfaces of each hollow figure: ‘The wound is the place where the light enters you.’ These words imply that spiritual grounding is attainable only when the sufferer acknowledges the injuries inflicted by his false persona and begins to nurture his inner life, the locus of genuine illumination.” Only when their veneer cracks is the light/Light able to get in.
In the room at the end of the installation is one more sculpture pair, titled Always Wanting/Never Enough: a man and a woman covered in Gucci and Louis Vuitton logos and wrestling each other on an altar-like pedestal, signifying consumerism.
Hanging above them—the interpretive key, at least in my reading—is a Christ figure deposed from the cross, whose wounds glow with LED lights. In a clever visual riff on the Rumi quote, “the light of divine sacrifice and surrender exits him,” through his stigmata, “shining on the desperately entangled couple,” offering redemption, Fuglie writes.
Jesus, the light of the world, seeks to penetrate our false selves, our false loves, and make us more ourselves, revealing to us our true identity as children of the living God. This God is far greater and more ultimately satisfying than sex, money, chemical substances, designer brands, and any other god we might worship. And I daresay that’s precisely because he’s not a megaman but rather is vulnerable—a wounded healer.
Another lectionary reading for Sunday is the wonderfully evocative Amos 5: “Let justice roll down like waters . . .” I feature this passage in a previous Artful Devotion and in a post on my old blog, where I discuss a batik by Solomon Raj that draws on that prophetic image.
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To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 27, cycle A, click here.