Eye of the Beholder
At The Dixon Gallery and Gardens, the “Ashe to Amen” exhibition interprets the Bible from an African-American perspective.
A black Christ and his multi-hued disciples — two of whom are women — dine not on bread and wine at this “last supper,” but on watermelon and chicken, papayas and bananas.
A beautifully carved wooden door depicts Nativity scenes featuring figures in African garb.
Barren “trees of life” and churches set aflame — testimonies to hate in this ravaged landscape.
A chicken perches on a fence. A nod to God’s creation in a humble backyard, or Peter’s denial of Jesus?
These are just a few images in an exhibition running through January 5th at The Dixon Gallery and Gardens titled “Ashe to Amen: African Americans and Biblical Imagery.” The 59 works of art date from the late-nineteenth century to the present and cover a wide spectrum of mixed media, from paintings to sculpture, photography to textiles, all created by African Americans.
The exhibition comes to the Dixon after showings at the Museum of Biblical Art in New York City and the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore. Dixon’s director Kevin Sharp sees Memphis as a natural fit. “We’re in a city that values its faith very much,” he says, “and the Dixon is committed to diversity in every sense. We’ve done projects that speak directly to African-American experience. But none has spoken to the issue of faith as this exhibition does.”
The exhibition’s curator is Leslie King-Hammond, director of the Center for Race and Culture at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Explaining how this project came about, she describes its 10-year evolution. “This subject has always been my own personal and intellectual fascination: how to make invisible entities — like faith, belief, spirit, practice, ritual, and ceremony — become visible in the form of an aesthetic expression,” she says. “In 1998 this was formalized into a serious research project after I participated in a scholars conference at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.”
In 2008, she won a Curatorial Fellowship Grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation that allowed her to travel to Australia and the Czech Republic, where she spoke at conferences “on art, religion, spirituality, and retelling the stories of the Bible,” she says. “In that same year I was invited by the Museum of Biblical Art to curate this exhibition. [So it’s been] ten years in the making.”
The exhibition’s title includes faith-affirming terms commonly used in African and African-American communities. “Amen” means “so be it,” and “ashe” (pronounced AH-shay) is from the Yoruba (Nigerian) language and refers to the inner eye of the artist; some scholars interpret it to mean power or life force. “When you think creation is at the very beginning of the Bible,” says Kevin Sharp, “you see art as a way that mere mortals can explore that experience of the beginning of everything.”
King-Hammond sees the exhibition as an intersection of many African belief systems as they are channeled through the Bible. Images reflect the artists’ understanding and interpretation of Biblical stories and the process of discovery and revelation they experience in the process.
She points out that although reading was banned for blacks for centuries, oral storytelling kept the Bible alive for them. So did its promise of salvation and hope for a world far better than the harsh reality they endured on earth. The works in the exhibition, she adds, question and challenge America’s moral, religious, and spiritual accountability in the aftermath of the slave trade and the persistence of racism on a global level. “The ultimate question posed by every artist is when will a person of color be accorded his God-given Biblical right to be a full member of the human race?” says King-Hammond. “It is the twenty-first century and these issues are still in conflict.”
One Memphis artist is a contributor to this exhibition. Jared Small’s contemporary version of The Good Samaritan depicts a white man tending the wounds of a black man, who has been assaulted in a public park.
Others in the scene, either passing by or sitting in the grass, appear mildly curious, utterly disinterested, or perhaps in denial. The work, according to Sharp, was commissioned by Memphians Brad and Dina Martin. “When it was completed,” says Sharp, “I showed it to Leslie and she said, ‘We’ve got to have it.’ It’s a very large, commanding work.”
One stunning piece that interprets scripture from the Book of Revelation is made up of 180 objects covered in silver and tinfoil. This series of winged thrones, altars, and tablets is titled The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly.. Over the center of the thrones are the words “Fear Not.” The installation’s creator was James Hampton (1909-1964), who worked as night janitor by day and an artist by night and died before The Throne was completed. It stands not only as a monument to Biblical inspiration but to the use of ordinary, found objects in creating art.
While several artists bring a contemporary slant to their work, others are traditional in style and subject matter. Oil paintings by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) include the landscape, The Walls of Jerusalem, and two thoughtful portraits, The Virgin Mary in Meditation, and Nicodemus, a powerful Pharisee who nonetheless sought Jesus at night to learn more about his teachings.
In addition to scripture, various works interpret church ceremonies and rituals, from heads bowed in prayer or raised in ecstatic song, to arms, hands. and faces lifted to the Almighty. Also displayed are pieces of fashion, including Evetta Petty’s Spanish Harlem, a black-stenciled felt hat with colored crystals; and Sunday Best, with its multicolored flowered crown and black velvet brim. Photographs too reflect the styles of the times, such as Linda Day Clark’s North Avenue, No. 8: Easter Sunday, circa 1995, showing two little girls wearing sweater-coats and white hats as they stand behind their little brother clad in a white shirt and a double-breasted suit.
Older photos and documents show how families worked to preserve the faith of their fathers and pursue education in spite of racial barriers and hardships. On loan from The Hudson Bigger Family Archives are fragments of a family Bible, including part of the family’s birth record, and a 1911 diploma from Hartshorn Memorial College, where Jeff Hudson, a tobacco farmer, chose to send one of his daughters, Katie Vashti Hudson. The college was founded to train African Americans as teachers, who were needed after emancipation to educate black citizens. The Hudson family archives hold a wealth of documents — photographs, poems, lyrics, spirituals, sheet music — as well as a reward notice, written in neatly flowing cursive by Jeff Hudson, that serves as a grim reminder of the racism he faced. “I will give $50.00 reward for capture of the person that set fire to my house on the night of the 1st of Dec 1894 . . .”
With such a wide array of historical and artistic items on display, and as the third and final venue for “Ashe to Amen,” the Dixon hopes to “reinforce the diverse work we’ve been doing all along,” says Kevin Sharp, “and to use this tremendous opportunity to engage the communities. We’ve sent probably 800 letters to churches and church-based organizations, inviting them to come to the Dixon on us, to bring their church bulletin as a pass. We’re hoping to drive significant audiences to the show.”
And curator King-Hammond hopes this audience will come away with “a sense of the amazing range of genres, and imaginative interpretations” that show the Bible’s impact on the lives of African Americans, she says. “Their ability to survive and create a brilliant legacy [when] bonded Africans were forbidden to learn to read or write — that’s extraordinary genius.”
For more information on this exhibition, visit dixon.org.