The artworks here span continents, reflecting both long-standing traditions and new sources of inspiration. They suggest the diverse ways in which artists engage spiritual and religious subject matter: as a strategy to address current issues, as a guideline to pursue a moral life, or as an expression of a highly personal view of the spiritual world.
What emerges is not a unified narrative on a very complex topic but, rather, selected illustrations of the importance of spiritual beliefs and practices in African and African American communities and of the means by which they have been translated into the visual arts.
- How African and African American artists created works of art to communicate spiritual concepts
- How spiritual beliefs and practices served as sources of power and resiliency for African and African American communities at particular points in time
In Henry Ossawa Tanner’s The Thankful Poor, a man and a boy sit in prayer at a humble dinner table. Bathed in soft, glowing light, this view of an intimate moment between black family members practicing the daily ritual of prayer and thankfulness is a milestone in the history of African American art.
The work depicts black religious practice in the most human terms. It revolves around the intergenerational bonds between an older black man and a younger boy, and it speaks to the importance of familial relationships and the transmission and preservation of black Christian culture.
The first modern African American artist to gain renown in both America and Europe, Tanner was one of the earliest to offer a counternarrative to the prevailing stereotypes of African Americans. Painted in 1894, The Thankful Poor offers a dignified view of African American spiritual practice in a direct response to the degrading images of black peoples that dominated turn-of-the-century visual culture.
Gerard Sekoto, a pioneer of African modernism, was among the first black South African artists to work with oil paints. In this delicately hued work, the artist reveals his command of light and shadow to illuminate the subject in a soft, warm glow. The boy’s face, however, seems prematurely aged, rendered with taut skin over prominent cheekbones, deep eye sockets, heavy eyes, and a pensive expression on the pursed lips.
Although the painting depicts a quiet, contemplative moment, it is hard to shake the feeling that this peaceful scene is informed by a weary suffering. The artist enjoyed a measure of recognition and patronage, but he suffered under South Africa’s system of racial segregation and eventually relocated in 1947 to Paris, where he lived out his days in self-exile. Something of that lifetime of struggle is intimated in Boy and the Candle.
Christianity’s introduction to central Africa dates to 1483, with the arrival of the Portuguese along the coast of the Kongo kingdom. Christianity did not supplant local beliefs but was adopted by Kongo rulers as a strategy to strengthen trade and political relations with foreign powers. Scepters, staffs, and crucifixes were used as local symbols of status and prestige devoid of specific Christian interpretations. Long after missionary efforts waned in the mid-eighteenth century, Kongo artists continued creating crucifixes with images of Christ that tended to have African features. This practice likely reflected the local relevance of the cruciform itself, for the cross in Kongo cosmology is a dikenga, or graphic sign, that represents the meeting of this world and the spirit world.
Alain LeRoy Locke, as the father of black American art criticism, encouraged Aaron Douglas to look to Africa for inspiration. Douglas adhered to that principle better than any other artist of the time. . . . Crucifixion makes a powerful statement about black spirituality and changing the dominant Western narrative of Christianity. . . . The Christ figure is one of the smallest figures in the whole composition. Simon of Cyrene, the African who bears the cross, is a much more powerfully rendered figure.—David C. Driskell
Religious thought the world over has tended to ponder the creation of the cosmos and the role of humans in it. This figurative stool made by a Dogon artist from Mali has been interpreted as representing the Dogon myth of the founding of the world and the creation of humankind. In both Dogon myth and art, paired figures with upraised arms recall the founding ancestral spirits, or nommo, who descended from their home in the sky to the terrain below, their journey thus linking the two domains—sky and earth—represented by the stool’s dual disks.—Christine Mullen Kreamer
Johnson applied his expressive, modernist style to the Old Testament story of Ezekiel, the prophet who had a dramatic vision of winged beings and wheels in the sky. Ezekiel’s raised arms—a gesture of awe and astonishment—form a bridge between earth and sky. Johnson often represented black figures in the role of biblical characters as a reflection of the deep ties between Christianity, spirituality, and the African American experience.—Adrienne L. Childs
Devotion to Mami Wata (Mother Water), a powerful water spirit recognized by peoples throughout Africa and the African diaspora, is reflected in masks and figures that bear her likeness. Altars display her image alongside offerings of the beautiful, exotic, and imported prestige goods that she prefers.
Depictions of Mami Wata draw on a nineteenth-century lithograph of a female snake charmer that was made in Hamburg, Germany. In the 1950s this image, reprinted in a calendar issued by an Indian company, was circulated widely in western and central Africa. The woman’s exotic, foreign appearance, her long, flowing hair, and her mastery over serpents captured public attention and blended with earlier, local ideas of water spirits and deities that were associated with fertility, power, and wealth achieved in part through river and coastal trade.
Minnie Evans portrays faces and figures in a manner similar to the ways that African carvers fashioned masks and figures: they are frontal, they look you right in the face, they are meant to confront you and make you engaged.—David C. Driskell
Ethiopia is noted for the production of liturgical arts—crosses, prayer books, healing scrolls, and icons—that reflect the nation’s embrace of Orthodox Christianity in approximately the fourth century. Inscriptions in ge’ez, the liturgical language of the Ethiopian church, enhanced the healing, protective, and devotional qualities of these artworks.
Devotion to the Virgin Mary was and remains extremely popular in Ethiopia, evinced by the sheer number of religious art forms that bear her image, such as this painted icon. The format of the icon is fairly standard: a central figure of Mary holding the Christ Child, with side panels depicting the Crucifixion, the apostles or saints, Saint George slaying the dragon, and Christ raising Adam and Eve. The green and deep blue hues of the composition are typical of the time period, while Mary’s crossed hands, the decorative folds and motifs of her shawl, and the inclusion of a book in the hands of the Christ Child may suggest a Western image of the Virgin disseminated in Ethiopia by Jesuit missionaries in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The handkerchief that Mary holds references a miracle attributed to the Virgin.
During Henry Ossawa Tanner’s long career as an expatriate artist living in Paris, he gained an international reputation as a painter of biblical themes such as The Good Shepherd. The evocative work is imbued with both humanity and spirituality. Although Tanner was criticized by some for not devoting more of his creative energies and position in the art world to representing “Negro” life, he was a highly acclaimed and influential figure for subsequent generations of African American artists who saw him as a trailblazer.