This article provides an introduction to the Bible and African American visual art. It explores the relevant scholarship, significant artists, and works related to this area. The artists and works covered in this article span the nineteenth to the twenty-first century. For the purposes of this entry, the visual arts include textiles, paintings, mixed media projects, installations, photography, sculpture, and film. The history of scholarship associated with African American visual art and the Bible is interdisciplinary in scope. It comprises areas, fields, and disciplines such as religious studies, art history, biblical studies, cultural studies, film studies, theology, history, folklore, the history of religions, and cultural studies. Below is a brief survey of some of these critical areas of scholarship.

Related Scholarship—Folklore and Religious Studies.

In his 1968 essay “Through the Prism of Folklore: The Black Ethos in Slavery,” Sterling Stuckey identifies African American aesthetic traditions as sources that reveal an African American ethos or a “life style and set of values” (Stuckey, 1994, p. 4). Stuckey’s work is foundational in establishing that African Americans did not emerge from slavery in the United States as tabula rasa; instead, he argued, they collectively forged a distinct culture influenced by a range of African cultural forms and “New World elements.” The historian of religion Charles Long, in his seminal work Significations: Signs, Symbols, and Images in the Interpretation of Religion and his essay “Indigenous People, Materialities, and Religion: Outline for a New Orientation to Religious Meaning” (Long, 1995, 2003), contends that within this “New World” context African American religion and art developed as a creative response to the “involuntary presence” of black people in North America. This creative response took the form of diverse, dynamic, and fluid cultural productions such as art and religion that evolved within what Long referred to as a “culture of contact” and exchange within North America among African, North American “aboriginal,” and European groups.

As a partial result of this contact, the slave trade, in combination with Christian missionary efforts, colonization, and the dislocation of millions of Africans, brought the Bible into conflict with the African cultures and people most affected by colonization and the modern slave trade. As African and African American people struggled to navigate the effects of colonialism, the institution of slavery, and their inferior status within these systems, many appropriated the Bible as a means for survival and protestation. While the Bible in the hands of the colonizers, slaveholders, and slave traders was often used to support and justify this inferiorization, people of African descent also identified with the Bible’s gospel message of freedom and its ideological association with the budding democracy in North America. These African Americans interpreted the Bible’s liberating gospel message as one of inclusion and believed that it included them despite antagonistic pro-slavery and anti-African cultural views and codes often presented by Christian missionaries.

African American biblical engagement and formation, therefore, is rooted in a history filled with conflict, contradiction, and creativity. Long argues that while African American creative responses to these conflicts and contradictions are influenced by the diverse streams that make up a North American culture of contact, African American cultural productions are fundamentally shaped by images and memories of the African continent as primordial homeland as well as African American experiences of an omnipotent deity who will ultimately bring about justice in this world or the next. African American experiences of deity take place within sacred-social worlds in which the living, who occupy the visible world, exist in communion with a host of beings that reside in the invisible realm, such as deities, spirits, ancestors, and heroes. These beings become enfleshed within the ritual practices of the living as a way of ensuring that the community survives and thrives.

While scholars such as Brown and Long have made the case for the development of African American aesthetic and religious traditions as a creative response to oppression and marginalization, biblical scholars have developed more specific theories on African American biblical formations related to the visual arts and other black cultural productions in light of these experiences.

Biblical scholarship.

In the book Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation, edited by Cain Hope Felder (1991), African American biblical scholars identify and analyze issues and themes related to conflict and creativity in African American engagement of the Bible, such as representations of race and Africa, gender and social hierarchies, and social and cultural modes of transmission. In his essay “The Bible and African Americans: An Outline of an Interpretive History,” Vincent Wimbush (1991) asserts that for enslaved African Americans the Bible provided a language world through which black people could raise critical questions regarding the contradictions between dominant biblical interpretations related to slavery and the Christian gospel message and stated American democratic values and construct ritual spaces of respite and transformation. African Americans identified with the “heroes” and “heroines” of the Bible and through these characters and their stories were able to create other worlds as alternatives to the brutal world of slavery and systemic oppression (Wimbush, 1991, p. 23). In her essay “Reading Her Way through the Struggle: African American Women and the Bible,” Renita Weems (1991) argues that enslaved African and African American engagement with the Bible is rooted in an aural-oral culture in which black people “studied” biblical texts by way of listening and memory. According to Weems, African Americans were exposed to the Bible through aural-oral processes out of which they fashioned a variety of creative responses, including religion and the visual arts. Allen Callahan (2006), in his text The Talking Book: African Americans and the Bible, refers to the central metaphor of the Bible as a “talking book” to highlight these aural-oral processes.

This idea of the Bible as a talking book is in some ways an identification with the West African notion of the talking drum. Talking drums such as the dundun in Yoruba culture are instruments used in ritual and communal ceremonies. West Africans cultivated the techniques that musicians use to manipulate an instrument’s sound in order to mimic the human voice.

In a broader understanding, the idea of “talking drums” is also associated with the central role of drums in a variety of West African cultures as transmitters of culture, mediators of particular sacred-social networks, and purveyors of communal discourses. African American visual arts that involve the Bible function in a similar fashion. As the art historian Leslie King-Hammond (2001) suggests, not only does “the spiritual and cultural ethos” of West African and African-derived cosmological structures and cultural forms influence the production of African American visual arts, but biblical narratives and parables provide visual artists with the “contextual and thematic strategies to artistically express” and comment on the black experience in North America (p. 435).

Chester Higgins Jr.’s (b. 1946) photograph Bible and Drum (1989) is an example of this. In the photograph an open, black leather Bible lies on top of a drum. With the Bible’s printed pages pressed against the leather drumhead, the black-and-white photograph represents a merging of culture, language, imagination, and memory. The various textures, light, shades, and tones express an emotional quality and subtle inflections that reflect the depth and the many nuances of African American creativity and commentary. This creativity and critical commentary takes place within a context of social conflict and cultural exchange. Black artists appropriate biblical themes and images as a way to expose the fissures and contradictions that exist between the realities of black life and the moral claims of American Christianity and the promises of an American democracy. Within this network of conflict and exchange, Callahan (2006) argues that enslaved African Americans did not appropriate the Bible as a book of answers but as a book that provokes thought and raises critical questions. African Americans view the Bible as a book of contradictions that mirrors the black life of “involuntary presence” in North America.

African American Visual Art

Bible and Drum (1989) by Chester Higgins Jr. Digital silver gelatin print.

© Chester Higgins Jr.

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Art history.

In order to explore these modes of commentary and critique in African American biblical engagement and the visual arts further, the art historian Richard J. Powell’s (1997) organizational categories might prove useful. Powell divides African American artistic productions into influences that developed during several historical time periods that include the cultivation of a folk-rural vernacular style culminating in the nineteenth century; the works of formally trained artists at the turn of the twentieth century; the New Negro Art movements of the 1920s and 1930s; the Black Arts movement and the cultural nationalism of the 1960s and 1970s; and black artists’ emphasis on African diasporic traditions in the latter part of the twentieth century.

As King-Hammond contends, early African American artists drew upon memories of West African cosmogonies, artistic techniques, and styles in order to construct biblical worlds that expressed their social location within the racial caste system of North American life. The vernacular styles they developed were rooted in an aural-oral culture that enabled them to create other worlds. Powell notes that from this vantage point “the self-taught and vernacular system style” of early African American artists has been shaped by the impact of slavery and “confinement within a socially-instituted caste” (1997, p. 26). African American artists and religious practitioners use biblical idioms as a means to express African American humanity and complex subjectivities out of this social location.

Artists and Bible-Related Art.

Harriet Powers’s Bible quilts are representative of the impulse of African American artists and religious practitioners to express black humanity and complex subjectivity. Powers herself does so by way of her cosmological worldview and the techniques she employs. Powers (1837–1910) was born into slavery near Athens, Georgia. She created two known Bible quilts, the first in 1886 and the second between 1895 and 1898. Powers identifies “preach[ing] the gospel” as her vocation and describes her first Bible quilt as a “sermon in patchwork” (King-Hammond, 2001, p. 444).

As sermonic forms, Powers’s quilts differ from traditional nineteenth-century American quilts. For example, traditionally story quilt panels were organized to be “read” vertically. Although Powers could not read the Bible, she re-created biblical stories she had committed to memory and organized them as scenes to be “read” horizontally by the viewer. Her quilts are to be read from left to right. Thus the “reader” of her quilts is oriented in the same way as a reader who would read the Bible as a written text. Additionally, most nineteenth-century quilters used simple and repetitive patterns. Powers’s quilts, however, use decorative appliqué techniques. The scenes she depicts in each square are replete with rich imagery and contain complex religious themes.

In her first pictorial Bible quilt (ca. 1886), Powers depicts biblical scenes and narratives from both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. These specific narratives revolve around biblical figures and stories such as Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Jesus’s baptism, the crucifixion, the Last Supper, and the “Holy Family.” Her visual representations of her ideas and iconography in these biblical scenes express a particular cosmological worldview. Leslie King-Hammond argues that Powers’s quilts are similar to Fon and Benin flags constructed to document historical events or celebrate local heroes. As Regenia A. Perry (1994) observes, celestial bodies appear a total of 87 times in Powers’s two pictorial quilts. Powers’s insertion of stars, the moon, and the sun in her various scenes is similar to the way in which these stellar bodies punctuate Congolese cosmograms.

In Powers’s sacred-social world these biblical figures also served as heroes and heroines whose fates and courses of actions raise critical questions regarding agency, divine justice, and ethical comportment in Powers’s nineteenth-century North America. In particular, Powers accentuates the significance of relationships and gender parity within communal structures. For example, in the garden of Eden both Adam and Eve name the animals. Also, Powers does not interpret the serpent’s “beguiling” of Eve as signaling “the fall of paradise.” Paradise continues after Eve gives birth to her first son, Cain. Satan only appears on the panel after Eve gives birth and before a panel in which the scene of Cain killing Abel shows Abel’s blood streaming down upon the earth. Thus, Powers does not blame Eve for the fall of humankind; instead paradise is interrupted by the violent act of murder.

In her second Bible quilt, Powers explores more apocalyptic themes using visual representations not only from the New Testament book of Revelation but also of local stories of natural events that included “the dark day of May 19, 1780,” or “Black Friday,” a day in which the smoke from New England forest fires caused atmospheric pollution and “the falling of the stars on November 13, 1833,” which makes reference to a reported meteor storm. Initially it was assumed that these local stories, while fascinating, were merely tangential to depictions of biblical heroes and figures. But these ideas are integral to Powers’s cosmological worldview and are drawn from specific biblical narratives that express the omnipotence and omnipresence of God. Powers interprets these scenes as a sign of God’s judgment, particularly of those who are powerful and arrogant and who, in their rejection of God, will endure eternal punishment.

African American art that incorporates biblical themes and is inspired by vernacular styles often highlights the central role of the preacher and the preaching of biblical texts as critical to the cultural history of African American biblical engagement. Callahan identifies the practice of the black preacher “taking a text” as a lens through which to view African American biblical engagement and aesthetic traditions. He describes this practice as one of molding, parsing, and reinventing received texts (Callahan, 2006, p. xi).

These practices of reinvention were important practices to enslaved African Americans, who were often bombarded with the slave masters’ authorized versions of biblical interpretations that most often admonished those enslaved to be obedient to their masters or warned slaves not to lie or steal. These ethical demands were meant to protect the master’s property and household but did not address issues regarding the morality of owning other humans as chattel slaves. The underlying implications that those enslaved were incapable of being productive or making moral decisions on their own justified the institution by claiming the conquering of African nations and black subjugation as a part of God’s will and necessary to black people’s salvation.

The black preacher in African American culture and visual arts presents a counternarrative and an alternative center of authority. When the preacher takes a text, the preacher establishes the religious, literary, imaginative, and social topographies for African American critical biblical engagement. Within this sacred-social space the black preacher takes a text as a way of creating and establishing ritual boundaries akin to the boundaries established in the brush arbors or the ring shout. These forms establish ritual spaces that are beyond the watchful eye of the slave master. These spaces are rendered invisible or what Peter Paris refers to as “concealed” or protected from intrusion by owners and their surrogates (2008, p. 477). Within these spaces black bodies experience freedom and fluidity in their humanity and the relationships they construct, build, and maintain within their sacred social worlds. The preacher serves as a religious guide and functionary who facilitates the community’s working out of its spiritual, ethical, social, and political objective: the cultivation of just community and an emancipatory ethos.

The works of Charles White and William Edmonson present images that represent two dimensions of the roles preachers as religious functionaries play. William Edmonson’s (ca. 1870–1951) limestone sculpture The Preacher (ca. 1930s) represents the more formal and prophetic aspects of African American preaching. Edmonson was a self-taught artist and a former slave from Nashville, Tennessee. Edmonson came of age during what would have been the Third Great Awakening. He was a member of the Primitive Baptist Church, which was established during the Second Great Awakening. Edmonson was “called” by God to create art. He constructed his tools out of railroad ties.

In Edmonson’s The Preacher the subject is dressed, formally, in a long coat. The Bible is prominently positioned in his outstretched hand. Edmonson’s preacher calls to mind the evangelistic preaching of the camp meeting revivals that took place across the United States and the nation’s territories during the periods of the Great Awakenings. African Americans participated in these camp meetings in large numbers because the meetings presented a more egalitarian religious and social setting in which blacks and whites, men and women engaged in shared religious practice and testimony. Blacks converted to Protestant denominations in response to the impassioned pleas of evangelists and, during the third wave in particular, renderings of the gospel that might have included a social message. Edmonson’s sculpture is reflective of this evangelistic fervor and prophetic intensity. Thus, Edmonson’s representation brings to mind nineteenth-century prophetic personalities such as Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, and Gabriel Prosser. His vernacular style may express his interpretation of an African aesthetic and a broader African ethos infused within African American visual arts.

By contrast, Charles White (1918–1979) portrayed this functionary in a more informal light in his painting The Preacher (1952). Although White was a social realist and a formally trained artist, his painting about African American life in the 1950s is inspired by black vernacular themes. White’s preacher, as opposed to Edmonson’s, who is grounded and staid, appears more fluid and dynamic. The preacher’s clothing in White’s painting is tattered. He appears to be just one among the community of believers. Still, his strong and steady hands make clear his spiritual authority. His arms are outstretched, and he is holding a copy of the Bible in both of his hands as if he is giving it as an offering. Rather than the public spaces and lively spaces of the tent meetings, White’s preacher calls to mind the more intimate family and community quarters or the brush arbors to which the enslaved would “steal away” after the master’s preacher had left.

Many self-taught artists and religious practitioners influenced by evangelical Christian movements focused on prophetic and apocalyptic biblical themes in their works. One such twentieth-century artist is Sister Gertrude Morgan (1900–1980). Based in New Orleans and a member of the holiness and sanctified church traditions, Morgan served the church as a missionary. She founded a daycare center and chapel with other women in her community. After a hurricane destroyed both, Morgan began receiving supernatural communications. As a result, in 1965 she began to paint and announced that she was the “bride of Christ.” As a bride of Christ, Morgan understood herself and her followers to be marked for salvation and redemption. Consequently, in her paintings and in life, she and her followers are always dressed in white. While her work largely focused on apocalyptic themes, the promise of redemption within the apocalyptic structure represented in Revelation 21:1 lay at the core of her message as a preacher, missionary, and artist in works such as New Jerusalem (1957–1974) and Jesus Is My Airplane (1970).

Elijah Pierce’s Crucifixion (mid-1930s) made of carved and painted wood is an example of both an evangelistic and didactic function of African American art that engages the Bible and biblical themes. Pierce (1882–1984) was born with a caul over his eyes. For African Americans in the South a child born with a veil possessed the ability to mediate and interpret communications between the spiritual and the material worlds. Being Christian, Pierce’s parents understood this event as a Christian calling and named him after the prophet of the Hebrew Bible or Christian Old Testament, Elijah. A barber and a preacher, Pierce embraced his skill as a woodcarver as a part of his professional vocation. He documented his sermonic interpretations with woodcarvings mounted on cardboard and eventually assembled them into what he called The Book of Wood. In The Book of Wood, Pierce “had to carve every sermon [he] never preached” (King-Hammond, 2001, p. 442). He shared his carvings with his congregation and displayed them at his barbershop. Crucifixion “reads” as a dynamic movement of Jesus to the cross. Drawing upon the Gospels and the book of Revelation, Pierce not only depicts Jesus’s movement toward the cross but also Jesus’s climactic role as a mediator between this world and the next.

James Hampton’s (1909–1964) mixed media assemblage The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly (ca. 1950–1964), expresses an apocalyptic vision of a “new Jerusalem.” In this work made with found and discarded items, Hampton illustrates his vision of a new heaven and a new earth in which God’s justice reigns supreme. Envisioning himself as an inheritor of God’s kingdom, Hampton himself posed with the assemblage wearing a crown he fashioned out of some of the found materials. His assembled work is a three-dimensional shrine that occupied a rented garage where he work, slept, and worshipped. It is constructed of gold and silver aluminum foil, glass Kraft paper, and plastic-covered wood furniture. The shrine consists of an altar, a throne, pulpits, and suggestions of a tabernacle with “mercy seats,” angels, and offertory tables. Hampton instructed visitors to approach the throne on their knees as a sign of reverence. Overall, it consists of 180 pieces and is now housed at the Smithsonian Institution. Originally intended to be “read” from left to right, Hampton positioned most of his Hebrew Bible or Old Testament references to the right and New Testament references to the left.

Biblical engagement, formal training, and late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century artists.

Edmonia Lewis, Meta Warrick, and Henry Ossawa Tanner are among the first formally trained black artists who received their training by way of apprenticeships or enrollment in art schools. The above turn-of-the-twentieth-century artists also drew from cultural memories and readings of the Bible in their artistic expressions. For these artists images of Ethiopia and Egypt serve as important metaphors for African American experience and identity.

African American Visual Art

The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly (ca. 1950–1964). James Hampton’s mixed-media assemblage expresses an apocalyptic vision of a “new Jerusalem.”

Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C./Art Resource, NY

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Edmonia Lewis’s (1844–1907) sculpture Hagar (1869), a depiction the Egyptian slave of Abraham’s wife Sarah in contemplation and prayer after she is cast out into the wilderness pregnant with Abraham’s son Ishmael, and her copy of Michelangelo’s Moses (1875), appropriated as an important icon by African Americans as the liberator of an enslaved and oppressed people, speak to the influence of abolitionist movements and African American artists’ preoccupation with images of slavery and freedom as the central paradox of American life and culture. Lewis, like most trained artists of her time, was constrained by the dictates of a neoclassic approach, which requires a homogenization of artistic style that was not inclusive of black vernacular forms. Nevertheless, Lewis’s selection of both Hagar and Moses as primary subjects of her art also speaks to the larger identification of African American experiences with the continent of Africa as a metaphorical and geographical homeland.

Artists such as Lewis and Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller (1877–1968) incorporate images of East African rather than West African origins in their works. African American appropriation of Psalm 68:31, which refers to Egypt and Ethiopia, is an extension of the concept of Ethiopianism. In nineteenth-century Ethiopianism, African Americans appropriated the psalm as a way of claiming an African identity and heritage that included dark-skinned people within the salvific project of a Christianized America and asserting themselves as best equipped to spread the gospel of the Christian Bible and American democracy to the African continent. Warrick’s sculpture Awakening of Ethiopia (1914) reflects these multiple meanings. “Ethiopia” is depicted as a female figure wearing an Egyptian headdress. The bottom half of the figure appears in a state of mummification, while her top half is stretching, turning and lifting her head is if awakening from a slumber, arising to new life and station, from the “darkness” of death to the light of new life (Callahan, 2006, p. 167).

Henry Ossawa Tanner’s (1859–1937) shift from “genre” painting to religious subject matter also highlighted northeast Africa. Tanner’s focus did not explicitly recall an idea of Africa as homeland for black North Americans; rather Tanner’s rendering of biblical subject matter enlisted a form of Orientalism, although his intent is to express a profound sense of humanism that goes beyond the reification of race and limiting stereotypes.

Tanner was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the son of an African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) minister and future bishop in the denomination. He studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and in 1981 traveled to Paris for additional training. He was a member of the cadre of African Americans who were committed to creating art that expressed the complex humanity and subjectivities of black people in ways that countered the stereotypical images that were being consumed by the culture and had been used to justify racial segregation and violence (Powell, 1997, p. 35).

The theme of flight is not only evident in Tanner’s personal narrative but central to Tanner’s portrayal of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in his Flight into Egypt (1916–1922) based on Matthew 2:12–23. In this painting, Tanner depicts the holy family fleeing to Egypt and expresses the hardship, alienation, and longing associated with flight from one’s home to escape death. Mary and Jesus are barely discernible as they ride on a donkey against the background of an arid desert and a moonlit sky. Joseph is merely a shadowy figure following closely behind. Many of his other paintings are also marked by this play of shadow and light to create spaces of domestic intimacy, as in Christ at the Home of Mary and Martha (1905) and Christ Washing the Feet of the Disciples (n.d.) based on John 13:1–17 (Marley, 2012). Tanner employs biblical images and narratives in order to express the most profound human experiences and expressions of alienation, dislocation, longing, and intimacy.

John Henry Adams Jr., a professor of art and drawing at Morris Brown College and contributor to Voice of the Negro, enlists the image of Simon the Cyrene in his The Modern Cyrenian’s Cross, or the Black Man’s Burden (1907) as a way of critiquing white supremacist structures that subjugate black people (Powell, 1997, pp. 33–34.) In this work, a black man is bent over and carrying a cross imprinted with “a rogues’ gallery” of politicians and writers, whose works and rhetoric are understood to perpetuate dehumanizing stereotypes and unequal treatment of African Americans. African Americans identify with Simon of Cyrene, who is portrayed in the Gospels as a worker who has just come in from the field and is forced by Roman soldiers to carry Jesus’s cross.

The Bible and the “New Negro” arts movement.

In his collaboration with the author James Weldon Johnson in God’s Trombones (1927), Aaron Douglas created a number of paintings that depict a cross section of themes and images that are a part of the African American biblical and artistic lexicon. Johnson was a part of the “New Negro” arts movement that culminated in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and early 1930s. The New Negro arts movement was championed by such intellectuals as Alain Locke, who was inspired by the poetry of the Howard University folklorist Sterling Brown. Locke and other black artists were looking to reject what they considered white foundations of artistic expressions that limited turn-of-the-century black artists, combat the commodification of African American images and cultural productions, and ground their work more clearly in African American idioms and forms.

In his paintings related to God’s Trombones Douglas draws upon themes, images, and tropes that have been central to black biblical engagement and humanistic concerns in order to ground his work more fully in African American idioms. The titles of these works include The Creation, The Prodigal Son, Noah Built the Ark, The Crucifixion, Let My People Go, and The Judgment Day. These works call to mind an African American focus on justice, visions for new community, and black humanity in the face of oppressive conditions.

The Creation in particular affirms the humanity and imago Dei of African American people. The Deity is depicted as a maternal figure who labors over her creation in Johnson’s text. Douglas counterbalances the centrality of humanity within this narrative with the smallness of the human being against the backdrop of the vastness of God’s whole creation. The Crucifixion and Let My People Go highlight the history of slavery and forced labor within the United States by depicting “black Simon” as the one who is coerced into carrying the cross. The Prodigal Son demonstrates the tension between black cultural institutions and participation in African American cultural productions such as jazz music in light of the Christian demonization of these so-called secular forms. Finally, Noah Built the Ark and The Judgment Day affirm God’s power and the notion that the divine arc of justice will indeed bring about a new vision of community.

The identification with Jesus and Mary as central figures in the gospel story of sacrifice, redemption, and salvation are important themes in black biblical engagement and African American art. These themes are particularly identified with the widespread African American experience of lynching during the latter part of the nineteenth century through the early twentieth century.

African American Visual Art

The Creation (1927) by Aaron Douglas. This image was created by Douglas for James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (1927).

SCAD Museum of Art Permanent Collection; gift of Dr. Walter O. Evans and Mrs. Linda J. Evans/Art © Heirs of Aaron Douglas/Licensed by VAGA, New York

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William H. Johnson (1901–1970), like William Edmonson, fashions his own depiction of what he considers African cultural forms in his art to articulate and interpret black experience. While Johnson produced his early biblical works during the wave of contemporary or modern “Negro” art created in the 1930s and 1940s, he began his career as a member of the “New Negro” class of artists. Johnson straddled these two eras as he developed his artistic lexicon by drawing upon Bible stories he had committed to memory.

While Johnson was trained at the National Academy of Design and had adopted a traditional expressionistic style, Johnson developed a two-dimensional style he associated with black folk and African aesthetics. These aesthetics are evident in works such as Jesus and the Three Marys (ca. 1939–1940) and Lamentation (1944) and provide a stark honesty and emotional quality to his work. Together these paintings express the identification African Americans have with the betrayal and crucifixion of Jesus as well as the experiences of mourning, loss, and collective grief of African American communities terrorized by racial violence.

In both paintings Johnson depicts the holy figures with globes of illumination around their heads. As a nod to an African sensibility, Johnson also depicts these figures with large feet and large hands as a way of articulating African American responses to the contradictions that exist within American life and society. The large hands of Jesus, the three Marys, and the mourning women signify the agency and power exercised even by those who are marginalized by structures of power and domination. The large feet express the experience of stability and strength that the marginalized can draw upon even in the face of death and horror (King-Hammond, 2001, p. 441). African American explorations of gender in the depiction of black male mutilated bodies and the power of black women to mediate divine power within and on behalf of communities are also recurrent themes.

Biblical engagement, representations of blackness, and diaspora aesthetics.

Romare Bearden’s (1911–1988) series of titles addressing these gendered themes includes The Prevalence of Ritual: Tidings (1964) and The Annunciation (ca. 1976). Each painting depicts an angel’s visit to a black woman in a rural setting. Bearden’s Prevalence of Ritual: Conjure Woman as an Angel (1964) demonstrates the dynamic fluidity of black engagement with the Bible, biblical stories, and figures as applicable to non- or extra-Christian practices that are a part of African American healing traditions.

The Bible is a source of healing words and conjured metaphors that conjure women and men utilize in their remedies for healing and protection of individuals and communities. The religious scholar Theophus H. Smith (1995) argues that African Americans harnessed the power of the Bible as a “conjure book” that served as a resource for healing and harming practices as black people confronted the oppressive systems that affected their lives. The conjure woman represents these non-Christian, African-derived practices that are a part of a multivocal African American religious and cultural ethos. Bearden’s use of technology and interweaving of modern images express the complex intersections at which African American engagement with the Bible are positioned and the significance of women’s participation.

Benny Andrews (1930–2006), in his painting Eve (1977), further complexifies African American subjectivity and gender representation. This complexification is particularly significant in light of the stereotypical images developed in reference to black women and black female sexuality as a way to justify sexual violence and deny the culpability of white men in the rape of black women during slavery and Jim Crow. Andrews portrays a bare-breasted black woman wearing a hat and shawl (markers of southern female respectability) holding an apple in “the garden.” As King-Hammond suggests, Andrews’s Eve confronts the viewer’s “gaze” and raises critical questions regarding not only the biblical Eve’s moral culpability in the “fall of humankind” but the moral culpability of black people and African American women in social and literary interpretations (King-Hammond, 2001, p. 441).

The themes of race, sexuality, and representations of Jesus and the crucifixion loom large as subjects in African American biblical engagement. The passion narratives serve as fertile ground for critical questioning and creative response to the moral contradictions of racism, segregation, and discrimination in light of America’s claims to promote democracy as a fundamental value and religious and cultural assumptions regarding the centrality of a Christian religious vision as the basis for the ordering of society.

African American visual arts especially provide space for countering anti-African and anti-black images and ideologies that buttressed discriminatory structures. As King-Hammond observes, from the seventeenth century through the first part of the twentieth century, the only popular images of Jesus that were shown in America were those of a white Christ (King-Hammond, 2001, p. 441). In the nineteenth century the A.M.E. bishop Henry McNeal Turner argued that African Americans had just as much right as whites to portray God and biblical personalities in their own image. With the rise of the black power movement and black liberation theology, African American theologians such as James Cone and biblical scholars such as Clarice Martin, Charles B. Copher, and Cain Hope Felder explicitly focus attention on the ontological blackness of God, God’s identification with the plight of black people, and the “black” or “African presence in the Bible” in order to counter anti-black rhetoric and affirm black humanity. Late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century scholarship on the crucifixion, sacrifice, and lynching published by Orlando Patterson, Angela D. Sims, and James Cone has also focused on the relationship between anti-black religious rhetoric and physical violence against black bodies as a means of social control.

Artists creating in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have contributed alternative representations of Jesus and the crucifixion in light of the African American historical experience of violence, terror, and subjugation. Renée Cox’s (b. 1960) photographic work It Shall Be Named (1994) presents the refracted image of a male nude body in the shape of a cross. The absence of his penis suggests mutilation and the interrelatedness of race, power, and sexuality in the terror of racial violence. Cox associates the violence and sacrifice of the cross with the violence of lynching.

Other works expand the human identification with Jesus and the crucifixion as a way to render the cross more inclusive. Oletha DeVane’s mixed media work In Our Own Image (1994) offers a creative counterresponse to F. Holland Day’s The Seven Last Words of Christ (1898), in which Day poses as Christ in a series of photographs. Day’s work is inspired by Guido Reni’s Ecce Homo (1639–1640). DeVane’s mixed media work provides multiple images of Christ with gradations of tonal qualities from light to dark. DeVane’s work represents a multivoiced rerendering of this image of the crucified Christ. The multiple hues, including a dark-skinned Christ, are demonstrative of the variety of shades and hues not only within the larger society but within African American communities as well.

The representation of a black Jesus has also shown up in films such as Blair Underwood’s The Second Coming (1992), which raises critical questions regarding the associations of race and mental illness with a black man’s claims of being the Messiah. Jean-Claude La Marre reimagines the passion narratives with a black Jesus and a racially mixed host of followers in The Color of the Cross (2005).

The concept of an nkisi—an object consisting of multiple relics and materials that provide protection and guidance—like the marriage of the Bible and the drum in Chester Higgins Jr.’s photograph—provides an appropriate metaphor for African American biblical engagement and religious scholarship in light of the diverse religious and cultural resources that influence African American visual artists who emphasize the cultural diversity present in the African diaspora.

An example of the construction of the nkisi in black cultural production shows up in Julie Dash’s 1991 film, Daughters of the Dust (Weisenfeld, 2003). In this film Dash portrays a Gullah Sea Island family at the turn of the nineteenth century. The Peazant family is preparing to depart for the mainland. Determined to remain on the island, the family matriarch, Nana Peazant, is concerned about what will happen to her children and grandchildren once they have left the land that their family has called home for generations. On the day of the family’s departure, Nana Peazant leads a ritual in which she ties a bundle filled with ancestral relics to a Bible to keep her progeny from harm and keep them connected to their ancestral moorings.

Januwa Moja (b. 1946), in her sculpture Crown of Thorns for the Visionary (1997), combines history and memory with African American prophetic and abolitionist traditions as she depicts an African American female ancestor wearing a glass crown. The crown is made of broken glass Moja collected from the streets of the community in which she lives and works in Washington, D.C. The beauty of a crown made of discarded broken glass serves as a metaphor for crisis, decay, and hope in an American culture and society that continues to be rife with moral contradictions and succumbs to environmental erosion (King-Hammond, 2013). Moja’s work honors the life of women such as Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, who provide hope as liberators of the oppressed and transformers of “suboptimal” conditions.

The works of Moja and Joyce Scott are examples of Powell’s (1997) notion of diasporic cultural productions that explicitly incorporate religious concepts, practices, and material objects that are African derived. Scott pays particular attention to the environment in her diasporic works not only by using found objects as material for her art but by designing art installations that transform and reconfigure physical space. In her art installation I’ve Been Sanctified (1991), Scott confronts the crucifixion as the lynching tree in the African American experience. In this work Scott remembers and mourns the lost ancestors who have been lynched throughout American history. In her sculpture St. John the Conqueror (2009), Scott uses found glass bottles, glass beads, wire, and thread to create an nkisi that has the potential to transform communities and create an other-reality.

The twentieth-century African American artist’s use of the nkisi as a cultural form is a continuation of the multiple traditions of black biblical engagement and the visual arts in which artists provide creative responses to the realities of African American experience, advance social critique, and participate in the construction of other worlds.




  • Bruce, Marcus. “A New Testament: Henry Ossawa Tanner, Religious Discourse, and the ‘Lessons’ of Art.” In Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit, edited by Anna O. Marley. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.
  • Callahan, Allen Dwight. The Talking Book: African Americans and the Bible. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2006.
  • Dash, Julie, dir. Daughters of the Dust. DVD. New York: Kino, 1991.
  • Felder, Cain Hope, ed. Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991.
  • King-Hammond, Leslie. “The Bible and the Aesthetics of Sacred Space in Twentieth-Century African American Experience.” In African Americans and the Bible: Sacred Texts and Social Textures, edited by Vincent L. Wimbush, pp. 433–447. New York: Continuum, 2001.
  • King-Hammond, Leslie, ed. Ashe to Amen: African Americans and Biblical Imagery. New York: Museum of Biblical Art, 2013.
  • La Marre, Jean Claude, dir. Color of the Cross. DVD. Beverly Hills, Calif.: Twentieth Century Fox, 2005.
  • Long, Charles H. Significations: Signs, Symbols, and Images in the Interpretation of Religion. Aurora, Colo.: Davies Group, 1995.
  • Long, Charles H. “Indigenous People, Materialities, and Religion: Outline for a New Orientation to Religious Meaning.” In Religion and Global Culture: New Terrain in the Study of Religion and the Work of Charles H. Long, edited by Jennifer I. M. Reid, pp. 167–180. Lanham, Md.: Lexington, 2003.
  • Marley, Anna O., ed. Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.
  • Paris, Peter J. “African American Religion and Public Life: An Assessment.” CrossCurrents 58 (Fall 2008): 475–494.
  • Perry, Regenia A. Harriet Powers’s Bible Quilts. New York: Rizzoli, 1994.
  • Powell, Richard J. Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1997.
  • Smith, Theophus H. Conjuring Culture: Biblical Formations of Black America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
  • Stuckey, Sterling. Going through the Storm: The Influence of African American Art in History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
  • Thompson, Robert Farris. “An Interview with Robert Farris Thompson.” In Daughters of the Dust. DVD. Directed by Julie Dash. New York: Kino, 1999.
  • Underwood, Blair, dir. The Second Coming. VHS. Petersburg, Va.: Quiet Fury Productions, 1992.
  • Weems, Renita J. “Reading Her Way through the Struggle: African American Women and the Bible.” In Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation, edited by Cain Hope Felder, pp. 57–77. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991.
  • Weisenfeld, Judith. “ ‘My Story Begins before I Was Born’: Myth, History, and Power in Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust.” In Representing Religion in World Cinema: Filmmaking, Mythmaking, Culture Making, edited by S. Brent Plate, pp. 43–66. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
  • Wimbush, Vincent L. “The Bible and African Americans: An Outline of an Interpretive History.” In Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation, edited by Cain Hope Felder, pp. 81–97. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991.
  • Wimbush, Vincent L., ed. African Americans and the Bible: Sacred Texts and Social Textures. New York: Continuum, 2001.

Further Reading

  • Cone, James H. The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 2011.
  • Crown, Carol, ed. Coming Home! Self-Taught Artists, the Bible, and the American South. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004.
  • Douglas, Kelly Brown. The Black Christ. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1993.
  • Patterson, Orlando. Rituals of Blood: Consequences of Slavery in Two American Centuries. Washington, D.C.: Basic Civitas Books, 1999.
  • Sims, Angela D. Ethical Complications of Lynching: Ida B. Wells’s Interrogation of American Terror. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Joy R. Bostic