If there's one work that economically and poetically encapsulates the theme of the new exhibit "Ashe to Amen," it's a black-and-white photograph of a well-thumbed Bible, flipped open and lying atop an African drum.
The 1989 gelatin print by Chester Higgins Jr., part of the exhibit on display through Sept. 29 at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, explores in one deceptively simple shot how African culture clashes and commingles with Christian traditions.
" 'Ashe' is a praise term in Yoruba that comes at the end of a prayer," says Leslie King-Hammond, who curated the exhibit, is president of the Lewis' board of trustees and co-created one of the 60 works on view.
"It means the inner eye of creativity of the artist, and also, 'so be it.' The complement in the New World was the word 'Amen,' " she says. "I was interested in the way artists combined their native traditions with Christianity and used African imagery to translate Biblical stories."
It's a fascinating topic, and the 50 artists featured in "Ashe to Amen: African Americans & Biblical Imagery" include such famous names as Henry Ossawa Tanner, Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence. Several pieces were borrowed from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Portrait Gallery and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Highlights range from Tanner's exquisite portraits in profile of St. Nicodemus and the Virgin Mary to Renee Stout's provocative neon installation, "Church of the Crossroads," which evokes a house of worship and the white hooded head of a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
In other instances, art world experts say, troubling questions arise that could have been avoided had King-Hammond provided more information about how the exhibit was put together and why she decided to show an artwork she co-created.
"She may have missed an opportunity by not explaining the importance of including this piece and why she took on the triple persona of board president, curator and artist," Janet Marstine says. "If you choose to take those risks, you owe it to your audience to provide an explanation, given the conflict-of-interest issues that would inevitably pop up."
Marstine wrote the 2011 book "The Routledge Companion to Museum Ethics," and is academic director of the museum studies program at the University of Leicester in England.
"Ashe to Amen" was organized by New York's Museum of Biblical Art. After Baltimore, it will travel to Memphis, Tenn.
The exhibit includes a gorgeous wooden door carved in the early 20th century by Nigerian woodworker George Bandele that's divided into three panels depicting the adoration of the Magi, the Annunciation and the Exodus.
The carvings wear African garb. According to the text panel, the door features "traditional elements of Yoruba figural sculpture — prominent almond-shaped eyes, large heads and distinct ears."
The way the artist mingles the Bible and African heritage is apparent in a flash. Elsewhere in the exhibit, those associations are less evident. For example, text accompanying "Chicken Walking the Fence" — a charcoal-and-acrylic work by Willie Birch, set in post-Katrina New Orleans — doesn't explain how it relates to the exhibit theme.
King-Hammond quickly elucidates the drawing's symbolism, starting with the Biblical story in which a rooster is said to have crowed three times in the Garden of Gethsamene.
"I do not like to have too much text to interpret or decode. I want you to be able to see these things with your own sensibilities," she says.
"Ashe to Amen" poses other questions having to do with curatorial objectivity.
In addition to "Celestial Praise House for Seneca Village" which King-Hammond made with her partner, the architect Jose Mapily, the exhibit features 10 other artists who studied or taught at Maryland Institute College of Art.
King-Hammond is MICA's graduate dean emerita and founded the institute's Center for Race and Culture.
The issue, according to Kym Rice, who directs the museum studies program at George Washington University, is that "Anything in a museum exhibit automatically becomes more valuable.
"Now, that the show has traveled, there have been multiple exhibitions," she says. "A piece becomes worth more money each time it's shown."
Four museum experts contacted by The Baltimore Sun said that King-Hammond's triple role as board president, curator and exhibiting artist was practically guaranteed to raise questions.
"It strikes me as a conflict of interest," says Holly Witchey, a former museum curator who teaches museum ethics at the Johns Hopkins University. "Caesar's wife should be above suspicion."
There's no debate that "Celestial Praise House for Seneca Village" — an homage to the African-American village razed in 1856 to build New York's Central Park — is of a high caliber and speaks to the show's theme. Holland Cotter, the Pulitzer-winning critic for The New York Times, called the piece "a magical theater-altar."
But, controversy has erupted in other instances of curators selecting their own works, from superstar neo-pop artist Jeff Koons in a 2009 show at New York's New Museum of Contemporary Art to an exhibit this month at Massachusetts' New Bedford Art Museum and University Gallery.
King-Hammond says she initially was reluctant to include "Seneca Village."
"As a curator, I always have problems with exhibits that seem to include elements of narcissism and self-interest," she says. "But my partner is also invested in this. It didn't seem fair to him or to the legacy of Seneca Village not to have the piece here."
A. Skipp Sanders, the Lewis' executive director, told The Sun that the museum received the go-ahead last summer from the Maryland State Ethics Commission to import "Ashe to Amen" from New York's Museum of Biblical Art.
However, Sanders didn't respond to a request to provide a copy of the commission's opinion, and a commission spokesman said such documents generally aren't public.
The experts contacted by The Sun also agreed that sometimes there are valid reasons to bend the rules.
The American Alliance of Museums' ethics code cautions curators to avoid conflicts of interest or even the appearance of a conflict, but it "doesn't say that conflicts of interest can never happen," says Elizabeth Merritt, who directs the Alliance's Center for the Future of Museums.
"But you have to think out ahead what the issues are and write out a policy in advance. A policy might stipulate that the interested parties withdraw from the decision-making process. A museum might exercise extra vigilance or public disclosure of the conflict. Or, the museum might decide to decline the loan."
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