King-Hammond is the founding director of the Center for Race and Culture at the Maryland Institute College of Art and helped organize the exhibit, “Ashe to Amen: African Americans and Biblical Imagery.” (The “ashe” in the exhibition’s title derives from the African Yoruba language and refers to an artist’s power or “inner eye.”)
The exhibit of 59 works reveals a wide breadth of genres, from painting to crochet to sculpture. “There is no such thing as monolithic African-American art,” said King-Hammond, adding that the exhibit is a way for African-American artists who have worked in the visual arts to get an overdue recognition for their “profound achievements.”
The timing of the exhibit — beginning during Black History Month, and later traveling to other locations in Maryland and Tennessee — is also deliberate. This year marks both the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the Rev. Martin Luther King’s landmark “I Have a Dream” speech.
“The timing is just right,” King-Hammond said in an interview.
Why has the Bible drawn so much attention from African-American artists? In short, history and lived experience.
Those who have roots in Africa are the products of many belief systems, and religion, “as it moved from geography to geography, never lost its sense of potency,” King-Hammond said. “Practice and belief have been so resilient. It’s the thing that helped them survive.”
The Bible was first introduced to American slaves through oral tradition. Its narratives and parables of the enslaved finding freedom served as personal and communal inspiration amid the cruelties and absurdities of life in the United States, both during and after the American Civil War.
“(The Bible) quickly came to function as a language-world, the storehouse of rhetorics, images, and stories that, through a complex history of engagements, helped establish African Americans as a circle of the biblical imaginary,” biblical scholar Vincent L. Wimbush noted in his 2003 book, “African Americans and the Bible.”
Or, as King-Hammond put it, “It gave them meaning to survive the most horrendous situations.”
Given such depth of experience, it is not surprising that the exhibit’s featured works by Romare Bearden, Sister Gertrude Morgan, Henry Ossawa Tanner and others share thematic links. Yet each is a distinctly personal reflection of artistic vision. “Going into that personal religious space,” King-Hammond cautioned, “that’s very guarded space and you have to tread carefully.”