The recent Tiffany exhibit at the Museum of Biblical Art on Broadway and 60th Street, in the headquarters of the American Bible Society, was enthusiastically received by New York art critics. As they say in another art form, it was tough act to follow.
However, MOBIA, as the museum is familiarly known, has come up with another beautiful and inspiring show, this time examining the religious art of African Americans and its relationship to Sacred Scripture. The exhibit is called “From Ashe to Amen: African Americans and Biblical Imagery” and will be open until May 26. The term ashe is a Yoruba word from Nigeria and is familiar to Africans and African Americans; it means inspiration. However, someone else used an even more descriptive definition: an inner eye. Amen, of course, means “so be it.”
The exhibit features about 60 pieces, among which are some that especially fascinated me. Horace Pippin’s “The Holy Mountain” appears at first to be a depiction of the peaceable kingdom in a lush green forest. A closer examination reveals that hidden in the trees are tanks and other symbols of war and violence against people. It is startling and disturbing. Pippin, a World War I veteran, painted this in 1945 at the close of the Second World War.
Clementine Hunter’s “Baby Jesus and the Three Wisemen” re-imagines the Magi’s visit in Louisiana. Another piece, a magnificently carved door, also features the Magi, who are carrying gifts of a more practical nature than gold, frankincense and myrrh, but also inspired by Scripture.
Joan M.E. Graham’s “My Spiritual Family” contains over a hundred small portraits on a mixed media quilt. Charles Alston’s “Midnight Vigil,” painted in 1936, is a deathbed scene with a community raising prayers to heaven for the dying person.
The pieces and media, including video, are so varied that it would be hard to pick a favorite but, if pressed, I might opt for a beautiful fan, the mainstay of women in the days before churches were air conditioned. The fan features the face of the great jazz singer and song writer, Billie Holiday.
One of the most appealing aspects of the Museum of Biblical Art is that its size, one large gallery room, almost guarantees that every piece in an exhibition is going to be special. There’s room only for the best of the best. A visitor can take in an exhibit during an evening after work or on a few lunch hours. Of course, it would take more than single lunch hour to enjoy the current exhibit. Unlike most of other museums in the city, it is free. You can read more about MOBIA and its exhibits here.