Allison Gulick considers Ashe to Amen at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, 830 East Pratt Street, Baltimore.
Ashe to Amen: African Americans and Biblical Imagery is open at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum and will be on view through September 29, 2013. The exhibition, which is the brainchild of Maryland Institute College of Art Professor and noted scholar, Dr. Leslie King-Hammond, addresses the influence of spiritual and religious practices on the aesthetics of African-American art.
Ashe to Amen is refreshing in its unapologetic approach to religion as a source for artistic inspiration. The title of the exhibition itself creates a bridge between two religious terms, referencing cultural and spiritual adaptation and transformation. Ashe refers to a change-bringing inner life force in the Yoruba (Nigerian) language and religion, while amen is the affirmative let it be so most frequently associated with Judeo-Christian religions. The exhibition covers a lot of ground as far as religious context, and it features a diverse group of African-American artists. These artists include well-known artists like Henry Ossawa Tanner and William H. Johnson, both renowned in part for their religious-themed works, as well as artists associated with the Harlem Renaissance including Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, and Aaron Douglas.
Ashe to Amen includes approximately 60 pieces by 50 African-American artists that date from the late 1800’s through today. The exhibition includes both academically trained and self-taught artists and provides numerous points of access for viewers of divergent religious and cultural backgrounds, acting as a space where audiences can examine the intersections of these different traditions. The show features everything from delicately constructed talismans and personal altars reflective of Hoodoo and Santeria, to Nkisi figures from the Congo, as well as Christian iconography showing the annunciation and crucifixion. These different iterations of religious items are important because African traditions were frequently hybridized with the religious customs of western colonizers so that those who were enslaved could continue to practice their traditional religions without drawing attention from their captors. For example, many of the deities of Santeria were synchronized with the attributes of Catholic Saints.
Many of the contemporary works in the exhibition will be pleasantly familiar to attentive Baltimore art audiences. Locals include: Baltimore favorite Joyce J. Scott; her mother, fiber artist Elizabeth Talford Scott; Washington, D.C. resident and last year’s Sondheim award winner, Renee Stout; as well as Baltimore-based photographers Linda Day Clark and Carl Clark; and recent MICA graduate Adejoke Tugbiyele.
Tugbiyele’s Flight to Revelation speaks to a sense of duality and transformation. Made of wire mesh and intricately woven palm stems, the sculpture manifests a tension between strength and fragility. The work is activated by the intricate shadows it casts on the wall from its points of suspension in the gallery. It speaks to a sense of faith and perseverance prevalent throughout the exhibition. When asked about the ways in which religion and spiritually inform her work, Tugbiyele responded: “My work takes on spiritual meaning both materially and formally. Process is also very important. The act of making is personally transformative and enlightening on many levels. It becomes another form of prayer.”
The exhibition is divided into five sub-categories: Reading the Text, Call and Response, Divine Revelations, Landscapes of the Bible, and Charismatic Voices, all of which reiterate the artworks’ sacred inspirations. Religious influence is also apparent in the exhibition design. The soft lighting of the museum creates a sense of sanctuary. The exhibition uses hydrangea blue and buttery yellow walls that speak to important colors associated with Yoruba religious practices, where blue is associated with spiritual centering and calm, and golden yellow reflects the celestial light of the heavens.
While the exhibition embraces its religious context, there is no bible beating, a deliberate choice to allow the exhibition to be more accessible to those who are perhaps not religiously inclined. “I didn’t want this to come off as preachy,” King-Hammond noted at the exhibition’s opening reception when speaking of her decision to steer clear of quoting scripture. Didactic panels are also kept at a minimum, encouraging the audience to have a more personal experience with the works of art and the dialogue happening between them.
Renee’s Stout’s Church of the Crossroads, is a neon sign featuring a depiction of the Eshu Elegba, the Yoruba deity who is known as the trickster and the guardian of the crossroads. Eshu Elegba, who also appears in one of the personal altars in the exhibition, is often depicted in Stout’s work as an abstract disembodied head with circular eyes, nose, and mouth. Portrayed here in white neon, the form looses some definition, it could call to mind the white hoods of the Klu Klux Klan. Stout’s neon sign asks viewers to draw their own conclusions about this church of the crossroads. The neon casts an eerie glow prompting questions: Who’s church is this? Is it safe in there? Where is this crossroads? Are you there now?
By far the most arresting piece in the exhibition is Xenobia Bailey’s SISTAH PARADISE’S GREAT WALLS OF FIRE REVIVAL TENT: MYSTIC SEER * FAITH HEALER * ENCHANTRESS EXTRAORDINAIRE. The large tent which is entirely crocheted, encompasses the hybridity and sense of spiritual magic I found so compelling in the imagery and message of the exhibition as a whole. There is an element of mysticism in this composition, with its bright colors and the repeating pattern of steaming teacups I am quick to associate with the reading of tea leaves. Or maybe it is the crocheted set of eyes that seem to imbue the piece with its own life-force, like a toy that may come to life when you leave the room. Either way I found it difficult to look away.
Overall, the sense of space and the exhibition narrative is refreshingly direct and easy to navigate. Yet, the second entrance to the gallery space creates an unfortunate dead zone within the exhibition, not for a lack of amazing work, but because the museum’s wall of floor-to-ceiling windows isn’t the most practical for displaying art. Make sure you don’t miss that part of the exhibition, though, which features two Henry Ossawa Tanner paintings and the Aaron Douglas painting, as well as curator King-Hammond’s collaboration with José J. Mapily entitled Celestial Praise House for Seneca Village, about the first African-American-owned property in 19th century New York.
When moving through Ashe to Amen I was struck by the sheer diversity and multitude of religious and spiritually inspired works from the canon of African-American art. By not positioning one medium, style, practice, or belief above another, the exhibition embraces individual works for what they are, personal expressions of divine inspiration and an important part of American history and art history.
Allison Gulick earned a BA in Art History from the University of North Carolina at Asheville and is a recent MFA graduate from MICA’s Curatorial Practice Program. Her previous curatorial work includes the exhibitions: Reloading the Canon: African Traditions in Contemporary Art; Invited: Celebration Station; Live and In Person: Globe Posters at MICA and the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall; and La Riqueza Del Pueblo: The Richness of the People. Allison has an addiction to coffee, chocolate, books, and British period dramas. She has a poker face that would put Lady Gaga to shame and in her spare time she rescues feral cats. Art Criticism in What Weekly (whatweekly.com/artcrit) is made possible with the generous support of the William G. Baker, Jr. Memorial Fund, creator of the Baker Artist Awards, www.BakerArtistAwards.org. Marcus Civin teaches in Curatorial Practice at MICA and edits these art criticism articles for What Weekly. Marcus’ writing has appeared recently in Print/Collect, Baltimore City Paper, Artslant, Incident Report Viewing Station, Aufgabe, The Courtland Review, Recaps Magazine, and out of nothing. For more information, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.