Entering the Museum of Biblical Art for the first time, I was pleasantly surprised to discover a small, intimate museum, with which visitors can completely engage in a few short hours. I felt relief from the typical pressure to stuff my brain with mounds of information; all the art and information on display was accessible, comprehensible, and very interesting, to say the least.
The museum’s current exhibitions, “Reaching Out: American Bible Society and the African American Community” and “Ashe to Amen: African Americans and Biblical Imagery” complement each other well.
Strolling through the former first, I learned a ton about the American Bible Society (ABS) and the various methods it has employed throughout the years to increase distribution and garner readership growth among African Americans. Founded in 1816, ABS provided bibles to African Americans during the Civil War, and continued to do so all the way through the Reconstruction Era, to the civil rights movement, to present today. Many of these bibles are on display in the exhibit. Notable examples include the first bible ABS produced the year it was founded, the African American Jubilee Edition of 1999, and the New Testament dramatized by African-American Readers in 1998 to increase accessibility for the illiterate populace.
“Ashe to Amen” occupies the main exhibit space at the Museum of Biblical Art. Its title refers to two “praise terms commonly used in African and African American communities.” Both ‘Amen’ and ‘Ashe,’ a word from the Yoruba (Nigeria) language, “are affirmations – essentially, ‘so be it’ – both in America, and throughout the African diaspora.” The exhibit is divided into five sections: ‘Reading the Text,’ ‘Landscapes of the Bible,’ ‘Call and Response,’ ‘Divine Revelations,’ and ‘Charismatic Voices.’ ‘Reading the Text’ introduces viewers to the notion that Africans only started to read the bible in America; “literacy was a source of enormous pride and empowerment within the early African American community.” Here, viewers see the beginnings of western influence on African art in America and how African Americans combined biblical western art content and themes with African art styles to create an art form unique to their own community.
‘Landscapes of the Bible’ features artworks realized by African Americans that incorporate the artists’ personalized understandings of sites described in the bible. ‘Call and Response’ displays artworks that mirror “call and response,” a “traditional African practice…based on verbal and nonverbal interactions between a speaker and listeners.” ‘Divine Revelations’ features the work of artists who attempt to “visually articulate a particular encounter or communication with a deity, ancestor, God, otherwordly being, or supernatural phenomenon.”
‘Charismatic Voices’ displays artworks that depict “the prophets, healers, angels, saints, and preachers” at the forefront of African American communities. One of the most powerful pieces of the entire exhibit is displayed in its center, a 2012 knit work by Xenobia Bailey called “Sistah Paradise’s Great Walls of Fire Revival Tent: Mystic Seer * Faith Healer * Enchantress Extraordinare.” This work attempts to explain the presence of Africans in America and connects the history of colonization to contemporary African American struggles for equality.
Both “Reaching Out” and “Ashe to Amen” are on view at the Museum of Biblical Art through May 26, and come highly recommended. Not only is the museum’s admission FREE, but so are its coat check and audio guides! You simply can’t miss the opportunity to learn about the rich evolution of the African American community’s artistic expression of its relationship with the Bible and America. Open Tuesday-Sunday 10 AM – 6 PM, and late on Thursdays until 8 PM, the Museum of Biblical Art is a very short walk from the Columbus Circle subway stop.
Inside New York 2013 can be purchased here.