A closer look at the collaboration between art and faith in the Congregate exhibit at MICA by Cara Ober
When you stand inside the clearing, you hear Maya Angelou’s voice from above. She recites ‘On the Pulse of Morning,’ the poem she read at the first inauguration of President Bill Clinton.
Come, Clad in peace, and I will sing the songs The Creator gave to me when I and the Tree and the rock were one. Before cynicism was a bloody sear across your Brow and when you yet knew you still Knew nothing. The River sang and sings on.
At the center of this hallowed space, there are three tree stumps, assembled together like a rough altar, a place to gather or pray. Overhead, tree limbs and hanging banners filter the overhead lights and define the space, reinforcing that you are standing in an actual clearing. When you look up, hand-painted text ripples on yellowed backgrounds. Just like sheets from a well-worn Bible, the words declare the value of faith, the power of spirit in a square-ish, no-nonsense font. Some statements recall specific Bible verses, while others feature personal mantras and absolutions. On a neighboring wall, a grid of small photos depicts African-American parishioners in a variety of church activities: in prayer, in song, and embracing.
Despite being located in the center of the Riggs and Leidy Galleries in MICA’s Studio Center, the space I have just described, an installation titled An Ardent Vestige by artist Tiffany Jones, is a holy place. There’s no other way to describe it. Jones created the installation as part of Congregate, a group exhibition designed by MICA’s MFA in Curatorial Practice Program, which paired six Baltimore artists with five churches from the Station North Arts District. The project included a three-month residency, where the artists gathered research and inspiration to create new works based on interactions and collaborations with their churches. Jones worked with the New Second Missionary Baptist, located on Lanvale Street, and with Michelle Gomez, the Curatorial Practice Student who selected her for the exhibit and residency.
“In the beginning, we approached the churches with a professional distance,” explains Gomez, who worked one-on-one with Jones to create her new work. “But, by the end, there was a lot of hugging… and so many discussions of faith and spirituality. Our goal was to create sustainable relationships and partnerships with churches in the area, not just to produce an exhibit.”
The two attended numerous church services, fellowship dinners, Bible studies, choir practice, and prayer groups while conducting their research. Jones based her project on the historical idea of the Hush Harbor, a secret place in the woods where slaves came together to exercise their forbidden faith. In addition to the sculpture Jones made from tree stumps and branches, she collected statements from the parishioners explaining what faith meant to them. Their statements fill the hand-lettered banners, which dangle and sway from the ceiling, like tree branches in the woods.
Although they have been located in the same neighborhood for decades, most church members had never attended a reception at MICA. However, when Congregate opened on Sept 6, the gallery was filled with over four hundred visitors, many of them church members who were curious to see the results of their collaborations. According to Jones, when she attended church the following Sunday at New Second Missionary Baptist, she was greeted with a round of applause, tears, and a multitude of hugs. Although she has not been a regular churchgoer since her childhood, Jones says she would like to start attending more regularly and feels that she has made a lot of new friends through the experience.
“We really questioned the authority of the curator in this exhibit,” says Gomez. “It was a true collaboration. Many of the decisions and ideas about this exhibit came from the congregations.” Gomez envisions future collaborations between MICA students and area churches in the form of internships, volunteering, performance, and community activism.
The Congregate exhibit features five other collaborations between Baltimore artists Laure Drogoul, Katherine Kavanaugh, Bashi Rose, Leo Hussey, and Leigh Davis who worked with other area churches and one center for spirituality. The exhibit will be up through September 25, with a Catalogue Release party and reception on Wednesday, September 25 from 6-8 pm. The event will feature Congregate catalogues fresh off the presses, church bands, and ice cream.
For more information and photos, go to the Congregate Baltimore website.
* Author Cara Ober is the Editor and Founder of Bmoreart.
**Photos by Cara Ober, Patrick Galluzzo, Crissian Chen, and Xiaotian Yang