Ignore, just for the moment, Joan M.E. Gaither's gorgeous "My Spiritual Family" mixed-media quilt that greets you when you first walk into the Ashe to Amen: African Americans and Biblical Imagery exhibition in the second-floor gallery of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum. You can come back to it. And then resist the siren song that is the sound of singing, drumming, and hollering coming from the "RUN MARY RUN" video performance by Rashida Bumbray and the Dance Diaspora Collective featuring Jason Moran, because it will transfix the eyes and ears for its entire 26-minute loop. Walk right past, as ridiculous as this sounds, the two pieces by Romare Bearden that are going to demand you stop and look. And then do your best not to be too overcome by the glory that is Xenobia Bailey's crocheted sculpture "SISTAH PARADISE'S GREAT WALLS OF FIRE REVIVAL TENT: MYSTIC SEER * FAITH HEALER * ENCHANTRESS EXTRAORDINAIRE" that hangs from the ceiling. Instead, walk right up to Henry Rocher's portrait of Edmonia Lewis, a small albumen silver print taken after the Civil War that is mounted toward the end of the show, because it provides a great lens through which to view the show.
As originally organized for New York's Museum of Biblical Art and curated by Leslie King-Hammond, MICA's graduate dean emerita and founder of its Center for Race and Culture, Ashe's organizing theme is right there in the title: it's a look at how African-American artists interpret, confront, and reflect upon the stories, ideas, beliefs, and spirituality found in the Bible. The exhibition covers a wide range of time and media, stretching from European-trained 19th-century artists such as Henry Ossawa Tanner through self-taught artists such as Clementine Hunter (whose "Baby Jesus and Three Wise Men" is a delight to behold here) and on through recognizable 20th-century names such as Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, and that indelible badass Aaron Douglas (seriously, his "The Creation" goache on paper is included here, and it's a gobsmacking reminder that he was as fearlessly experimental a visual thinker as any of his modernist contemporaries), and on up to contemporary artists, such as young painter Jared Small and Baltimore's Loring Cornish. The pieces themselves include paintings and sculpture, fibers and mixed-media installations, and how they relate to the exhibition's theme is instantly and visibly understandable.
For instance, Horace Pippin's "Holy Mountain III" is an arresting interpretation of Isaiah 11:6-10, that stretch that begins "The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid" before going on to note "They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain" in the King James version. Pippin depicts this peaceable kingdom as a menagerie of ox, bear, leopard, wolf, and a black figure, presumably the Jesse named in this passage, presides over it, his two sons playing among the wildlife. In the background, among the trees, however, all is not so peaceful. Pippin was a self-taught artist who lost the use of his right arm during World War I, and he knows what men are capable of doing to each other. And subtly embedded in the background of this tranquil scene are the silhouette of a lynched figure, tanks and infantrymen advancing, and bombs falling from planes passing overhead.
The ways that most of the works fit into the show's conversation about African-American art and Biblical imagery is readily ascertained, be it William Edmondson's impressive 1935 sculpture "Preacher" or Renée Stout's haunting "Church of the Crossroads," a neon-and-wood piece that spells out its title in the electric red familiar to the Jesus Saves neon announcements of storefront churches and then uses a white tube of neon to create a cross atop a triangular form that resembles a Klu Klux Klan hood. It's a potent reminder that Klan members and bigots then-and now-ostensibly believe in the same Jesus, and that the violence perpetrated by one upon the other is quietly ignored.
Which is what makes the inclusion of Rocher's portrait of Lewis so curious and quietly profound. It appears to have nothing to do with the exhibition's stated themes. Rocher was a German immigrant who settled in Chicago and became a noted celebrity portraitist, photographing Broadway stars when shows would pass through town. Lewis is a bit of an enigma, born in 1844, the daughter of a Haitian father and Native American mother, who studied art at Oberlin College before she moved to Rome, where she continued her studies and lived most of her life. She became a noted sculptor, turning out busts of esteemed men (Abraham Lincoln, John Brown, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) and marble works inspired by Native American stories (Hiawatha). Her most famous piece is the stunning "The Death of Cleopatra," which shows the Egyptian queen perished, head turned and back, arms lax, still seated in her throne, a singular ruler even in lifelessness.
Rocher's photograph of Lewis appears to be an odd choice. It's a posed portrait in a studio, featuring Lewis seated in a tasseled chair. She wears what looks like an artist's smock, a beret atop her head, and a plush scarf wrapped around her shoulders and torso, like one of those collegiate robes you see in portraits that line university halls.
That was the eureka moment for this pair of eyeballs: Here is an African-American woman depicted as a person of great skill, expertise, and learning in 19th-century America, where neither African-Americans nor women were often given that distinction as a subject in artistic representations. Lewis earned it through her own creative output, the ways she chose to represent her own thoughts and ideas, in a manner that became a kind of beacon for the entire show. Ashe to Amen represents the labor of people of African descent asserting an authorial voice over the moral and ethical belief system of this new place called America, people who were made Americans not by choice but by chain and force. Since before the printed word, imagery has been a potent vehicle for communicating Christian allegories that shape how we live our lives, but they're performing a similar educational role: They're stories designed to instruct us how to live. And, yes, stories matter-but who gets to tell those stories matters just as much.
Ashe to Amen is on view at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture through Sept. 29.