BALTIMORE – The traveling exhibition Ashe to Amen: African Americans and Biblical Imagery—curated by Leslie King-Hammond, graduate dean emerita and founding director of the Center for Race and Culture at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA)—will present African-American artists' interpretations of Biblical stories and traditions through historic and contemporary art at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture June 22–Sept. 29.
Ashe to Amen is among the first scholarly explorations into how the Bible has informed the multicultural African-American community's evolving artistic expression.
Ashe to Amen presents the ever-shifting intersections of aesthetics and belief through recurring themes of creation, revelation, faith, liberation and identity. The exhibition showcases a wide range of artistic expression through approximately 60 works of art and design, dating from the late 19th century through today by nearly 50 African-American artists, 25 of whom are still active.
Featured artists include the well-known Romare Bearden, Sister Gertrude Morgan and Henry Ossawa Tanner as well as established contemporary artists, such as Rashida Bumbray and Xenobia Bailey. In addition to work by King-Hammond, MICA artists include: painter, sculptor and educator Willie Birch '73 (MFA in Art Education); editorial, commercial and fine artist photographer Carl Clark '86 (photography); fine art photographer, educator and photojournalist Linda Day Clark '94 (photography); multimedia artist Oletha DeVane '73 (general fine arts); retired art education faculty member and quilter Joan M.E. Gaither, Ed.D.; Rinehart School of Sculpture Director and sculptor Maren Hassinger; fashion designer Januwa Moja '79 (crafts); multimedia artist Joyce J. Scott '70 (art education); painter Arvie Smith '92 (LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting); and Nigerian-American visual artist and student Adejoke Tugbiyele '13 (Rinehart School of Sculpture).
Although reading was largely banned for Blacks in antebellum America and the content of books was inaccessible to many African Americans until the rise of literacy in the 20th century, the Bible has been known through oral tradition for generations. For the African Americans who learned to read and write, it was a joy that defied slavery and gave bonded people a means of exacting intellectual freedom, affirmation of self, family and community. The Bible's narrative and parables provided artists of African descent with the inspiration, contexts and themes to express their responses to the harsh and frequently incongruous realities of life in America.
"Ashe to Amen: African Americans and Biblical Imagery explores complex questions about how African Americans used and interpreted the Bible since the first encounters Africans had in the New World," King-Hammond said. "African Americans who did learn to read did so as much as an act of resistance as an act of liberation. Artists took it one step further to use their brilliant imaginations and technical skills to re-tell the stories of the Bible through an African cultural perspective and express positive meaning in their lives in the face of incredible hostilities."
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. Among the Yoruba, ashe (pronounced AH-shay) is a crucial dynamic of the "inner eye" of the creativity of an artist and the power to make something happen. Western scholars also interpret the term to mean power, authority or life force. The words are affirmations—essentially, "so be it"—both in America and throughout the African diaspora.
"One of my favorite sections is the display of treasured family Bibles and other sacred objects. These show the rich material culture artists are drawing upon, whether as sustenance in their own lives or as inspiration for their creative output," said Michelle Joan Wilkinson, Reginald F. Lewis Museum's director of collections & exhibitions.