The sound of joyful voices raised in song in the gospel tradition filled every corner of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture on a recent afternoon for the opening of its current exhibition, “Ashe to Amen: African Americans and Biblical Imagery.”
The exhibition's title uses two commonly recognized African and African American praise terms to introduce the show's theme. The Yoruba “ashe” and “amen" are words of affirmation, meaning “so be it” or "and so it is." Additionally, "ashe" refers to the creative power of an artist to make something happen.
"’Ashe to Amen: African Americans and Biblical Imagery’ is an exhibition that I created in order to talk about the things that African Americans have been experiencing since we came to the shores of the United States,” said exhibition curator Leslie King-Hammond, founding director of the Center for Race and Culture at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) and chair of the R.F. Lewis museum's board of directors.
“It talks about the intersection of African religious beliefs, Christian religious beliefs and all those beliefs we created in between to address our spirituality and religious needs."
The exhibition, which was first shown at New York's Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA), is a visual study of African American religious traditions. Honoring their tremendous impact as African American religious and community leaders, King-Hammond dedicated the show to the memories of the late reverends Dr. Marion C. Bascom and Dr. Harold A. Carter, Sr., former museum board members.
The exhibition includes works from renowned artists such as Henry Ossawa Tanner and Romare Bearden to those of contemporary artists Xenobia Bailey and Baltimore’s Joyce J. Scott.
"The show is not created around any particular denomination. It is created for believers and nonbelievers,” King-Hammond said.
As they walk through the exhibition, with recorded gospel music playing in the background, viewers have been heard to comment about feeling some sort of spiritual connection. Upon hearing the story of the survival of Bailey's single-stitch, hand-crocheted revival tent, which sat in a box in a flooded studio during Hurricane Sandy, but was not damaged, the connection seems obvious.
"It's such a great story," said Lowery Stokes Sims, curator at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design and former executive director of the Studio Museum in Harlem.
"It sat in water for two weeks and it's still in shape…Now that's truly a miracle from God!"
A. Skipp Sanders, the museum's executive director, said he found intriguing “the way the exhibition uses the art and all kinds of items we saw in our senior relatives’ homes to sharpen our understanding of the African–related cultural connections that persisted in our everyday lives, even when we were forgetting their original meaning, and even as we embraced a Christian theology.”
He said of the crocheted revival tent: “I swear, it really is mystical."
To complement the exhibition and broaden visitors' understanding and appreciation of the work, museum officials have added workshops, bus tours, music and dance performances to the schedule.
"As one of the sponsors, we just think that this is a wonderful way to get a different segment of the community to come in," said Beverly Carter, an exhibition sponsor and co-chair of the museum's Ashe Circle," a support group for the museum.
“We're seeing people here who've never been here before and who've never seen an exhibit of this kind before. We'd like to see this continue in the future."
Ashe to Amen will remain open through September 29 at the R.F. Lewis Museum before moving to Memphis’s Dixon Gallery and Gardens.