A blue Jesus breaks a loaf of bread in front of his disciples as they prepare to eat barbecue chicken. A glass bottle figure of St. John rests on a podium, his hair made of wire and coral. The Holy Bible rests open on a drum set. Three young smiling men in colorful shirts and cowboy hats carry gifts toward a red barn. When you read the words, the images sound laughable, primitive, even defamatory, in some ways. When the words are the only images you have, it is easy to be overly creative, for the mind to form pictures of the unknown. When Christianity was introduced to various parts of the world, words were all these new believers had. Different traditions had different ways of depicting their faith based on the stories they had been told, and the African American community is no different from any other. Those crafty traditions continued to influence later generations, forming an entire genre of art. These specific images, among more than fifty others, are – thankfully – all on display for the next two weeks at the Museum of Biblical Art. No need for you to dream up your own images – see them for yourself within this tiny yet engaging space.
In an exhibition entitled Ashe to Amen: African Americans and Biblical Imagery, MoBiA has yet again pushed the boundaries of biblical art display and exhibition and introduces viewers to a religion from a completely underrepresented tradition. When you wander through the halls of a major art institution like the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Morgan Museum, the religious-themed artworks that you’ll recognize are generally those with a golden tint, depicting flat but realistic bodies, religious symbols like the cross or a halo easily identifiable. These are the European tradition. What you don’t normally see prominently displayed are works from the African American tradition. There is a sense of greater creativity, a freedom of expression in these works, made of all different mediums.
At MoBiA, a work like Xenobia Bailey’s Sistah Paradise’s Great Wall of Fire Revival Tent takes pride of place. Made of hand-crocheted cotton and acrylic yarn, this multi-colored construction hangs from the ceiling, the first item that visitors notice when walking through the door. This work is a commentary on the struggle for justice and equality for African Americans. Behind that, the viewer’s eye is drawn to Church of the Crossroads, a neon sign created by Renée Stout on the uncertain future of Christianity and the church. Contrasted with these two major contemporary works are much older pieces, including Romare Bearden’s majestic stained-glass-like oil on canvas entitled Madonna and Child and William Edmondson’s Neolithic-like limestone sculpture entitled Preacher. Old, worn Bibles, designer Sunday hats, a glass mosaic pulpit and a carved wooden door are interspersed with the rest of the works throughout the intimate gallery space.
Ashe to Amen (the “Ashe” is an African term meant to represent the power of the artist and similar in meaning to the Christian “Amen”) was curated by Dr. Leslie King-Hammond, Founding Director of the Center for Race and Culture at the Maryland Institute College of Art. The nearly 60 works of art on display range in date from the late 19th century to today. Each work emphasizes the unique and changing tradition of African American religious art. According to King-Hammond, “This exhibition is about the artistic and spiritual process of discovery, revelation, and expressive interpretation of very personal, intimate relationships that each artist evokes as a response to their own experience as channeled through the sacred text of the Bible. The works in the exhibition find common ground in representing visions of life and philosophical beliefs that emerged from a distinctive American culture that has developed and evolved over centuries and are now a unique addition to the broader field of American art.”
Ashe to Amen is on view only until May 26, so make your way over to the museum before the show closes! MoBiA is open every Tuesday through Sunday and located at 1865 Broadway (at 61st Street). Entrance to the museum is completely free! The exhibition will travel to both the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture in Baltimore, Maryland (June – September 2013) and to the Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis, Tennessee (October 2013 – January 2014).
The Museum of Biblical Art is one of the best museums in New York – don’t be fooled by its small size; MoBiA is one of the few institutions that displays informed and well-researched exhibitions of uncommon or underrepresented artworks. Did you see this exhibition or others at MoBiA? Let us know what you thought by leaving a comment in the space below!
Like what you read? Stay updated on New York art exhibitions and events by clicking “Subscribe” via the link at the top of this page!