by James Romaine and Phoebe Wolfskill. Penn State University Press, September 2017. 204 p. ill. ISBN 9780271077741 (h/c), $79.95.
Reviewed January 2018
This collection of fourteen excellent essays, by major scholars, covers important African American artists who produced religious subject matter. Their dates ranged from 1860 through the 1970s, encompassing the Great Migration of 1915–1960, which brought blacks from the rural south to the urban north. Their religious practices accompanied them and served as subject matter for artists.
In Aaron Rosen’s Art and Religion in the 21st Century (Thames & Hudson, 2015) he states that “when you enter the world of art, you are… entering the realm of religion.” One might say that when entering the world of African-American art, one enters the realm of racial identity. Although spirituality and religion exist at the core of an essentialist view of African American identity and culture, Beholding Christ and Christianity in African American Art offers Christianity as a lens through which to examine the artists’ religious identification and expression.
In these groundbreaking essays, the media explored are primarily paintings, but sculpture and photography are also included. The selected artists represent the academically educated versus the self-taught, northern urbanites versus southerners, and spiritually led artists versus those who intellectually compare the complex relations of their art and religion to issues of class, gender, sexuality, commercialism, and race.
Many artists recreated Christian characters and Bible stories in their own unique styles, often portraying the characters as non-white or black. Other artists explored themes from the black church such as flamboyant ministers, black bourgeois communities, and their congregations. Homo eroticism, sculpted in themes suggesting religion, and sexualized women used by street preachers to proselytize and collect donations, are explored. Self-taught artists recreate their visions according to direct communications from God and Christ.
Several artists practiced Catholicism, which elevated their status respectively. The restrained ritualism of Catholic worship stood in opposition to the Protestantism practiced by many African Americans. Congregants of black Protestant churches exercised a range of expressive worship styles. Pentecostals were identified as exceptionally expressive, and thereby thought of as rural, lower-class, and unrefined. The prevalence of church in the black community also made religion a factor for artists to consider, regarding their commercial successes.
Good illustrations, bibliography by theme, and an index contribute to this important book, recommended for all art libraries and large public libraries.