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"Ashe to Amen: African Americans and Biblical Imagery" at the Museum of Biblical Art in New York City
Horace Pippin, The Holy Mountain III, 1945. Oil on canvas, 25 1/4 x 30 1/4 in. Courtesy the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

NEW YORK, NY.- The far reaching and highly diverse spectrums of African American life as presented though works by five generations of artists goes on view in Ashe to Amen: African Americans and Biblical Imagery at the Museum of Biblical Art.

Alternately impassioned, sardonic, ecstatic, and coolly ironic, the nearly 60 works on view present layer upon layer of deeply felt emotions regarding the Biblical traditions that most enslaved Africans encountered for the first time in the United States. Yet surprisingly often to some, the adopted Christian teachings were and remained for generations grounded in beliefs native to West and Central Africa, the original homes of hundreds of thousands of Africans who were brought to North America in bondage.

The works in Ashe to Amen range widely in terms of style and vision and date from the late 19th century to 2012, with half of the nearly 50 artists still active today. Academically rendered images from the turn of the 20th century by Henry Ossawa Tanner are hung just yards away from Harlem Renaissance / New Negro Movement artist Palmer Hayden’s biting cartoon-like 1930 The Dove of God. In a Works Progress Administration-inflected midnight vigil scene by Charles “Spinky” Alston, relatives of a deceased man entreat God for the safe passage of the man’s soul. Dozens of contemporary works address questions and affirmations of faith, morality, and, in a neon work by Renée Stout, possible future directions of religion in today’s society.

Seminal works include Romare Bearden’s early photomontage Prevalence of Ritual: Conjur Woman (1964), which references the powerful role of healers in communities not served by doctors trained in Western medicine. The Word War I veteran and self-taught Horace Pippin’s The Holy Mountain III (1945) references Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom prophecy of the leopard lying down with the goat while spectral figures in a dark background suggest the grim fighting in the European Theater during World War II and, alternatively, the cloaked stirrings that precede a beating or lynching. Joyce J. Scott’s Inkisi: St. John the Conqueror (2009) presents a talismanic figure of a trickster folk spirit believed to come to the aid of slaves.

Ashe to Amen presents art that contemplates and comments on the thoughts, rituals, and practices found in Western religious traditions as refracted through the eyes and experiences of artists who for decades lived and worked outside mainstream American traditions, both societal and religious. In addition to oil-on-canvas paintings, the exhibition includes photography, beads, mosaics made of shards of glass, a limestone street curb chiseled into a sculpture, fabric, metallic ribbon, video, and the top of a small paint can.

“There is no uniform or monolithic African American art,” said exhibition curator Leslie King-Hammond, Ph.D., Graduate Dean Emerita/Founding Director, Center for Race and Culture at the Maryland Institute College of Art. “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.”

The exhibition’s title includes terms commonly used in African and African American communities: amen and ashe (or ase in a variant spelling), a word from the Yoruba (Nigeria) language. Ashe (pronounced AH-shay) is a crucial dynamic of the “inner eye” of the creativity of an artist, or the power to make something happen. It is also, like the word “amen,” an affirmation – essentially, “so be it.” The words are widely used in various parts of the African diaspora.

Ashe to Amen: African Americans and Biblical Imagery is organized by MOBIA. The exhibition will travel to 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).

Exhibition Highlights
The 1935 Preacher, by William Edmondson (1874 (?) – 1951), is a nearly two-foot-tall limestone sculpture by an artist who began to work as a sculptor when in his 50s and was the first African American artist to receive a one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1937. His creations were designed initially as grave makers or headstones for the members of his community.

World War I veteran and self-taught artist Horace Pippin (1888 – 1946) is represented in From Ashe to Amen by The Holy Mountain III. The painting shows leopards and lions in a peaceable kingdom setting, a subject employed by artists for centuries that recalls Isaiah’s prophecy of the lion lying down with the lamb. Pippin often addressed slavery and segregation in his work, and spectral figures cloaked in the darkness of woods in the background add an ominous element to the otherwise bucolic painting. Pippen died the year after the painting was completed.

Following World War II, many African American artists received formal training thanks to funding provided by the G.I. Bill. Among them was Benny Andrews (1930 – 2006), who studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. A figurative expressionist painter and the son of a sharecropper and grandson of a slave, Andrews created earthly images inspired by the Bible’s rich world of religious personalities, including the 1977 Angel, showing a woman playing a harp under a golden-orange sun.

Church of the Crossroads, a neon installation by Renée Stout (see top of press release), references the neon signs found on the facades of storefront churches. Church of the Crossroads is part of Stout’s ongoing works that look at how people of African descent have created new meanings from intersections of Biblical texts and American and African belief systems.

Mixed-media contemporary works include the 2009 Inkisi: St. John the Conqueror, by Joyce J. Scott. Inkisi incorporates a recycled glass bottle that symbolizes vessels for sacred elements or the resting place for spirits in African and African American cultures and is an exploration of the intersection of Christian and African belief systems.

In Bible and Drum, Chester Higgins, Jr. (b. 1946) evokes traditional African music and dance and their relationship to the Bible in a scene captured in a church located in Bronx, New York.

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