Is there a Place for Black Christianity in Contemporary Art?

Is there a Place for Black Christianity in Contemporary Art?

by Yvonne Bynoe

Among both the sanctified and the sinners, the sleeper hit song of the pandemic was “Try Jesus, Don’t Try Me” (2020) written by Tobechukwu “Tobe” Dubem Nwigwe. Nwigwe is a thirty-something-year-old Houston native of Nigerian descent. The married father of three is also a former Catholic. Against mournful tones reminiscent of blues ballads, Nwigwe and his bandmate trade the lyrics:

Try Jesus, not me, ’cause I throw hands.

Try Jesus, please don’t try me, because I fight.

I know what he said about getting slapped,

but if you touch me or mine we gonna have to scrap.

In the song’s video, the singers are dressed in all white and the camera zooms in on the gold grill in Nwigwe’s mouth. The song has been hilariously called the theme song of the Disciple Peter and the gospel version of Crime Mob’s “Knuck If You Buck” (2004).

This wasn’t the first time that secular music and gospel music merged. In 1997, Kirk Franklin’s “Stomp” became an instant sensation that rankled conservatives in the Black church who declared it blasphemous. “Stomp” has an infectious and uplifting rhythm that got the song played in Black nightclubs, on R&B radio stations, and on MTV.

“Stomp” opened the door for other artists such as the gospel duo Mary Mary and Sounds of Blackness who, like Franklin, took a modern approach to gospel music. Perhaps more important, “Stomp” and its descendants are songs that were played at Black events and helped older Black churchgoers bond with the young folks who weren’t likely to be sitting in the pews on Sunday.

In contemporary visual art, there isn’t a similar bridge joining the secular world with Black Christianity.

Jammie Holmes, a rising star based in Dallas, stands out as the rare artist who frequently employs Christian symbols or narratives in his paintings. To be clear, Holmes isn’t waving any religious banner. Instead, he treats Christianity as a natural part of the landscape that his subjects inhabit. The self-taught artist was born and raised in Thibodaux, Louisiana, a small town about 65 miles northeast of New Orleans, known for the 1887 massacre of 60 African-American farmworkers who attempted to organize.

Holmes’s works reflect on the trials and tribulations of modern Black folks who live in marginalized, low-income communities across the country. They’re just trying to make it to the next day, emotionally and physically intact, as they deal with violence, death, and their own mourning.

One of Holmes’s celebratory paintings is “Ushers” (2020).The work is based on his grandmother who was involved in her local church in Thibodaux since her youth. “Ushers” depicts a group of women—one with her hands raised (perhaps on the verge of praise shouting), surrounded by three other women. Two women hold Bibles and a church fan.

“Ushers” – Jammie Holmes | 2020

In Black Pentecostal churches, female ushers adorned in all white attend to female congregation members who are overcome by the Holy Spirit. To be appointed an usher is a source of pride for Black women who are overlooked and undervalued in their outer worlds. Holmes is quoted as saying that “Ushers” shows, “the essence of what it was like at a Southern mass.”

For many Black Americans, their Christianity isn’t confined to a building that they enter on Sunday mornings. Rather, Christianity is a core element of their identities, even if they haven’t attended a church service in decades or led spotless lives. A majority of Black American Christians, like their African forefathers and foremothers, seamlessly intertwine the sacred realm with their secular realities.

A 2014 Pew Research report, “Religious Landscape Study,” interviewed more than 35,000 Americans from all 50 states about their religious affiliations, beliefs, and practices and found that (79%) of Black Americans identify as Christian. More recent Pew studies found that African and Caribbean immigrants of the U.S. are more likely than native-born Black Americans to identify as Christians and to regularly attend church services.

One, therefore, doesn’t have to be a Christian or even a person of faith to understand that Christianity is a critical component to the expanding narrative of Black people in the United States.

Christianity is inextricably linked with White supremacy, the evils of colonization, and human enslavement that not only ravaged the continent of Africa but also oppressed and brutalized tens of millions in the diaspora. However, out of those atrocities, Black churches developed that continue to serve as the religious, business, and social centers of Black life, particularly in the American South.

Additionally, during the era of Jim Crow from the 1870s through the 1960s, career options for Black Americans were largely limited to being “a teacher or a preacher.” Therefore, Black churches became, for better or worse, sites for upward mobility.

And The Lord Said (1934) by Allan Rohan Crite. Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute Museum of Art

The exhibition, Unchained: Allan Rohan Crite, Spirituality and Black Activism, currently on view at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute Museum of Art in Utica, New York, features 60 works and is the first exhibition to highlight Crite’s religious art.

Allan Rohan Crite (1910-2007) is best known for his paintings of Black people who lived in Boston’s South End community in the 1930s and 1940s. He intended for his art to counter the prevailing racial stereotypes of the day. In that vein, Crite’s religious works position faith and church participation as normal parts of the lives of Black folks.

His depictions in the 1930s of Jesus as a Black man were progressive, insofar that they provided an African-American interpretation of Christianity. In his autobiography, Crite, a lifelong member of the Episcopalian Church, says, “For a long time, I felt as far as the Church was concerned, that there was too much the impression of a mostly European institution, practically to the exclusion of anything else.”

Last Station: Suggestion for Station of the the Cross (1935) by Allan Rohan St. John St. James Parish, Roxbury, MA

Munson-Williams’s president and CEO, Anna D’Ambrosio says of Crite, “His art builds a bridge from historical Biblical moments to everyday life today.”

Why then are there so few contemporary works that are examining how faith, identity, and community are integrated among Black Americans?

The question is less about highlighting work that advocates any Christian doctrine or that situates Christianity as morally or theologically superior. Rather, it’s about “interrogating” the history, customs, beliefs, rites, rituals, and personalities that have been and remain integral to the lives of millions of Black Americans (native-born and naturalized).

In visual art, there’s been more of a willingness to engage topics such as Hoodoo, rootwork, and conjure because these spiritual practices are associated with notions of an authentic Southern Black culture. Hoodoo is a spiritual practice that is a mélange of African-derived rituals, Southern Black customs, and Native American practices (particularly herbalism).

The Prelavence of Ritual: Conjur Woman (1964) by Romare Bearden

The conjur woman is featured in Romare Bearden’s 1964 collage series, Prevalence of Ritual and appears repeatedly throughout his body of work. (Bearden spelled conjur without an “e.”)

In 1969, Bearden, who was born in Charlotte, N.C., wrote in the peer-reviewed academic journal, Leonardo, “A conjur woman was an important figure in a number of Southern Negro rural communities. She was called on to prepare love potions; to provide herbs to cure various illnesses; and to be consulted regarding vexing personal and family problems. Much of her knowledge had been passed on through the generations from an African past, although a great deal was learned from the American Indians…”

Many people, including Black Americans would be surprised to learn that back in the day it wasn’t uncommon for pious Black Christians to engage the services of conjure women or rootworkers. Hoodoo, like other Afrodiaspora spiritual practices, such as Santería and Louisiana Voodoo, survived centuries of Black enslavement by masking their rituals with aspects of Christianity.

It is important to note that Afro-Cuban artist, Harmonia Rosales, who was born in Chicago, has successfully focused her artistic practice on portraying the Orishas, which are the deities that create the foundation of Ifa, Santería, and Candomblé.

Additionally, throughout their respective careers, Betye Saar and Renee Stout have created assemblages that reference mysticism and African traditions. There’s also a preponderance of paintings by Black American artists with renderings of halos around their subjects’ heads suggesting a nondenominational beatification.

The reluctance, it seems, has been to showcase art centered on Black Christianity.

 Black American photographers have long been willing to include the Black church experience in their work. A range of celebrated photographers including Ming Smith, Dawoud Bey, and Jamal Shabazz have captured stylish and indomitable church ladies and the spirit of religious ceremonies such as weddings and baptisms. Furthermore, Jamaican-American artist, Renee Cox created a powerful series of photographs that examines Christianity’s relationship with race and gender.

Black photojournalists also are responsible for many of the iconic images of Southern Black churchgoers organizing, protesting, and praying throughout the years of the Civil Rights Movement. These church folks who lived in the backwoods, in small disenfranchised towns, and in big segregated cities were the backbone of the movement.

There are, however, few contemporary paintings that focus either on the lives of Black Christians or on the body of the church—the inner workings of these Black congregations. Moreover, there is no visible commentary on the current role of Black churches in the advancement of social justice. It’s difficult to believe that there has been no Black church participation in the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, but the exhibits suggest otherwise.

In the myriad of shows that sprung up in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder by police, variations of the same handful of images and themes predominated. If Black churches were indeed AWOL during the height of BLM protests, why wasn’t this historic course change addressed by Black artists or exhibits?

Religion, similar to politics, is a tricky terrain to navigate in public spaces. However, the lack of works on Black Christianity appears to be conscious and intentional.

There isn’t a well-known painting analogous to “Try Jesus, Don’t Try Me” or “Stomp” that portrays the hurdles and experiences of young or newly saved Christians or that interprets what it looks like to “walk in faith” on these streets in the 21st century. The situation parallels what Kanye West said in his song, “Jesus Walks” (2004), the breakout single from his debut album, College Dropout. 

They said you can rap about anything except for Jesus.

That means guns, sex, lies, videotape.

But if I talk about God, my record won’t get played, huh?

Incidentally, in 2005, “Jesus Walks” garnered West the Grammy Award for Best Rap Song, along with his co-writer, fellow Chicago rapper Rhymefest. The song had also been nominated for “Best Song of the Year.”

Despite the wealth of real world material that could be explored on canvas, it doesn’t seem to be happening in any meaningful way. Perhaps Black Christianity is too controversial or not sufficiently erudite for museum curators and gallerists. One gets the sense that a large number of art professionals have predetermined that works about Black Christianity are technically inferior, sentimental hogwash, or propaganda validating the “White man’s religion.” Consequently, the subject matter has been largely ceded to Black “commercial” artists. These artists mass produce their work and sell inexpensive prints to Black American art buyers.

When it comes to so-called commercial artists, they’re persona non grata outside of the Black art ecosystem. Consequently, regardless of their talent, their works are rarely exhibited or written about or included in artistic criticism because they’re not considered culturally or historically relevant.

The Baptism II by Ted Ellis

Contemporary art reflects back to us who we were at a particular point in time. The picture, however, is woefully distorted when we willingly omit key information because it’s a complicated and multi-layered subject. Many arts organizations and cultural institutions continue to opine about “equity” and creating art spaces to “empower” “underinvested” communities, yet their exhibit audiences remain 90% White, even in cities with considerable Black populations. It’s long past time that they acknowledge their program themes may be of interest to their donors but not to the Black people they’re intending to “activate.” Part of the programming blind spot is not including Christian-themed works, as well as other absent subjects.

Although it’s part of a wider dialogue, what’s needed in most cities is exponentially more emphasis on developing Black writers, art historians, and curators who represent a broad spectrum of Black ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds. It is this new guard who’ll identify, critique, and exhibit works that are more reflective of Black Americans who, by our existence, are full of contradictions, complexities, and improvisations.


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