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Art as a window into Black religion in the African diaspora

By Chantee Parris ’09 M.Div.

Not just words, but art as well, is a critical component in elucidating black religion in the African diaspora.  That became apparent during several highlighted events associated with the Middle Passage Conversations Conference:  the opening plenary featuring painter, writer, speaker, sculptor, and performance artist Faith Ringgold; the ongoing exhibit in the Institute of Sacred Music gallery, Visual Exegesis: Religious Images by African American Artists from the Jean and Robert E. Steele Art Collection; and production of the play Living Water, written by Yale Divinity School student Meredith F. Coleman-Tobias ’09 M.Div. (click here for separate story about the play).

The April 3 opening plenary was an appropriate kick-off for the conference, since Faith Ringgold’s tumultuous career passage as an African-American woman artist chronicled a particularly grounding experience of resiliency in the face of significant historical and personal odds— a stirring examination of the lived struggle against a legacy of violence that began when the first slave ship forced black bodies across the Atlantic to the New World.   Her provocative slide-show presentation of pieces such as “Die 1967,” combined with her proclamations of hope and persistence, set the tone for the following eight Middle Passage panel conversations on Black religion in the African Diaspora.

“If I didn’t struggle, I probably would have done even more!” Though it was a humorous response to a seminarian’s question about the tribulations of her life, these and others of Ringgold’s words in Marquand Chapel appeared to be a source of inspiration for the audience.   In a lengthy slide show presentation, Ringgold shared more than 40 years of her life as an artist.

David DriskellOne of the attendees at the Ringgold presentation, the Rev. Anthony Bennet of Mt. Aery Baptist Church in Bridgeport, CT, said he was thrilled to be at the conference.  With a teething baby in one arm and a conference program in the other hand, Bennet said he simply “could not pass up the awesome invitation to dialogue about issues related to the diaspora of African peoples.”

Visual Exegesis, curated by the team of Dorit Yaron and Jean and Robert Steele, focused on artistic interpretation and elaboration of biblical text, religious tradition, and ritual practice to represent the everyday and the extraordinary in human experience and identity.
The Institute of Sacred Music’s announcement of the exhibit described Visual Exegesis this way:  “Powerfully, persuasively, with gentle wit and acerbic bite, with vision and prophetic voice, the artworks and artists assembled here concentrate attention on the specific events, the sacramental practices, the biblical teachings, the hallowed bodies, the celebrations and sorrows, the politics and poetics, the grief and gratitude, that they communicate and portray.”

At an opening wine and cheese reception and gallery talk for the exhibit on the evening of April 4, conference participants and the general public had an opportunity to view all 39 pieces of Visual Exegesis, share their impressions of the art with others, and hear a brief presentation by Robert Steele, who is executive director of the David Driskell Center for the study of the Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora at the University of Maryland, College Park.

“This is some of the most beautiful artwork I’ve seen in a long while.” Said Rachel Watson M.Div. ’10, a Visual Exegesis guide in hand.

"These works help me better than words to understand what is ineffable about black experiences and the human experience in general."

“Quite frankly, it is inspirational,” remarked Watson, who is treasurer of the Yale Black Seminarians.  “These works help me better than words to understand what is ineffable about black experiences and the human experience in general.”

Anthony Reddie of the Queen’s Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education in Birmingham, England showed a particular appreciation for the collection.  “Art gives you a new language with which to engage in theology,”  observed Reddie.  “Some experiences are so painful and so visceral that they gnaw away at the very fabric of your soul, and some words just don’t get there... Visual art gives you another way of tapping into emotions that deepen reality.”

Horace Ballard ’09 M.A.R. commented, “The art gives a great representation of trajectory and movement across time and space which communicates political actions and crafts a new language across history so that we create a new nexus of who we are and how we express ourselves not based solely on what was done to us by others.”
Visual Exegesis was presented through the collaborative efforts of the Institute of Sacred Music, the David C. Driskell Center, and organizers of the Middle Passage Conversations

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