Religion Unplugged

By Angela Groom, June 23, 2021
Exhibition view at Bridge Projects, Photo: Robert Wedemeyer
The Exhibit ‘Otherwise/Revival’ At Bridge Projects Explores Impact Of Azusa Street Revival In L.A.

Bridge Projects began in 2017 as a series of salons and in-studio events, which led to an official gallery opening at a Hollywood location in October of 2019. A group of artists, curators and scholars launched the project to serve artists and create a space for conversation to “bridge” the contemporary art world and religious tradition, say directors Cara Lewis and Linnéa Spransy.

As such, Bridge Projects seeks to be a place for artists to express an aspect of themselves in a way that the contemporary art world often shies away from. “A lot of times, artists feel like they have to hide that part [religion] of themselves,” Lewis said in a phone interview.

The gallery’s current group show, “Otherwise/Revival”, was co-curated by Lewis and independent curator Jasmine McNeal. It presents the work of 31 contemporary artists exploring the impact that the Black church and, more specifically, the Black Pentecostal movement has had on their lives.

It all began in Los Angeles in 1906 at a house on Bonnie Brae Street where a Black pastor, the Rev. William J. Seymour, led a Bible study that grew into what became known as the Azusa Street Revival. During an era of Jim Crow laws, Seymour’s sermons on the power of the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts, such as speaking in tongues, united people from all creeds and backgrounds. Seymour’s sermons ignited what became the worldwide Pentecostal movement that shapes Christian life across the globe to this day. At the start it crossed all boundaries of race, gender, class and geography. Only later was it divided by race in the United States.

Bridge Projects board member and donor Roberta Ahmanson (also a board member and donor of’s parent non-profit, The Media Project) said Bridge Projects was planning a show on the Azusa Street Revival long before George Floyd died while being arrested on May 25, 2020.

Meanwhile, Lewis and McNeal agreed that, in the wake of the events of the past year, the exhibit and gallery could be an important space for understanding and healing both for the viewer and the artists.

In a phone interview, McNeal said the concept of the show connected to her own desire to highlight Black culture as it sees and expresses itself and her curiosity about the fruit of Black artists inspecting their own history and culture. Lewis said that her sense of connection stems from her religious background, having grown up in a Methodist church and currently attending a church that has a Pentecostal pastor. Not every artist in the show is Black and not every artist currently practices religion, yet each artist shared their personal memories and experiences relating to the church.

The show’s title “Otherwise/Revival” comes from author and artist Ashon T. Crawley and his study of the Pentecostal movement. In his 2016 book “Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility (Commonalities)” he writes, “What otherwise means is that there are alternatives to the normative… It is a yielding and openness and hopefulness toward being infused, toward being changed.” The possibilities that arise from “otherwise” aren’t necessarily a rejection of categorization but rather, according to Crawley, “…allow[s] a kind of letting-be, a letting-happen.”

All Christian believers are familiar with otherness through a kind of body dysmorphia: They exist in physical bodies but know the earth is not their home and long to be in their eternal bodies with Christ. In a catalog essay by Ahmanson titled “Revive Us Again,” whose title comes from William Mackay’s 1860s gospel song of the same name, she writes that:

“In what the Bible describes as the Fall, humanity was divided, first separated from God, then divided within ourselves-wanting to do one thing or another-and last divided in our relationships- parents from children, tribe from tribe… human beings long to be whole, undivided, complete once again in communion with God.”

Otherness opens us up to facing narratives and experiences outside of ourselves. Walking in another’s shoes requires a “yes” posture to know what it is to exist beyond a separate set of preconceived notions.

Breath is a prevalent theme throughout the show, as it is a physical indication of life and movement. This theme manifests in different ways from historical events and figures, family histories, personal memories and experiences, to the physical ability to breathe (George Floyd and other victims of violence), move, play an instrument and communicate.

The curators believe that history affects how we view our surroundings: it contains memory, it contains anecdotes and it defines our sense of belonging. Lewis points out that the show begins and ends with pieces that reference or take place in Africa. Deana Lawson’s piece “The Garden” (2015), depicts a couple sitting on a lush green landscape located in the Congo surrounded by looming darkness. In a conversation with Interview Magazine in 2015 she describes the piece: “The image references Eden… I imagined my Eden to be in the heart of Africa, the heart of the world-the mighty Congo.” She goes on to say, “… the subjects depict a sacred union within the Black family, the body is at one with the plant world of Africa, and most of all, the subjects are at one with the Creator.” The piece transcends time, referencing anywhere from the beginning of time, the Christian Creation story and the looming Fall of mankind, to the theft and displacement of Africans to the Americas.

This is similar to Mark Steven Greenfield, Kehinde Wiley, and Letitia Huckaby in the way that the work superimposes Black figures back into the history that they were erased from, whitewashed and left unrepresented. Greenfield’s gold leaf paintings on wood panels are reminiscent of early Christian iconography and the gold leaf paintings of early medieval Europe. This style and method of painting can be traced to North Africa, where Egyptians used gold leaf to adorn sculptures and coat the rooms of deceased Pharaohs.

Greenfield re-appropriates the practice with jet-black figures, simultaneously using the work as a platform for dialogue. “Saartjie Baartman“ (2020) depicts a prestigious tribal woman of the same name, adorned in gold and outlined with a saintly halo, who was exhibited as a “freak show” in London and Paris during the 19th century, due to the objectification of her buttocks. Even after her death in 1815 her remains were exhibited until the late 1970s. Greenfield gives Baartman a position of honor and dignity she did not receive in her lifetime.

“Collateral” (2020) is a triptych that depicts the Black Virgin Mary at the center, holding a Black Baby Jesus, sneakers piled at her feet, with three men on either side beneath halos and floating bandanas symbolizing the Crips and the Bloods. According to Greenfield, it is a metaphor for, “promising lives cut short… innocent lives lost in the crossfire of gang violence.” He compares the lives lost to the suffering of Christ.

Wiley uses his affinity for Baroque stylism to juxtapose modern figures with classic paintings. In “St. Nicholas of Myra” (2015), a Black man is depicted both as himself and a saint, wearing beige cargo pants, or shorts, and a black t-shirt with images of basketball players sporting the various haircut styles offered at barbershops. In one hand he holds a book, turned to the page of a reproduction of Raphael’s “The Ecstasy of St. Cecilia” the patron saint of musicians, and with the other hand he offers a traditional Christian blessing as a contemporary version of the Catholic Saint Nicholas, patron saint of orphans and sailors, among others.

Huckaby explores the experience of 19th century African Americans who traveled the Mississippi River through Kansas and Oklahoma. She combines altered photographs with embroidery to create silhouettes that allow viewers to imagine themselves in the history of the subject. Her husband, Sedrick Huckaby, honors the lineage of artists who worked in papier-maché, using their technique to create massive sculptures, such as (2021).

Historian Henry Louis Gates’ recent PBS documentary on the Black Church explained the deep power and meaning of the church for Black Americans. It also explained how racists have targeted the Black Church with violence, seeking to harm the people of faith within and violating the principle found in both Scripture and the Declaration of Independence that all men and women are created equal. “Otherwise/Revival” addresses that theme as well.

VinZula Kara’s painting, “3x3=9 Die In A Church” (2018) is a graphic depiction of the mass shooting that killed nine congregants at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church at a prayer meeting in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. In Kara’s work, three black crosses, similar to the three crosses at the crucifixion of Jesus Christ on Golgotha hill, sit atop varying textural designs lined with Biblical passages surrounded by a background of bubblegum pink and red with a fog of white. The nine victims are placed at the foot of the cross.

As Jasmine McNeal put it during a phone interview, “Church is what and where we make it.” This implies that the openness of Christlike spirituality leaves open the otherwise possibility for the act of creating art to be seen as an act of meditation, movement and worship. The work of some artists in the show has been compared to glossolalia, or the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues.

Caroline Kent’s work resembles speaking in tongues through its complexity, symbolism, and elements of the unknown. With “It’s Like Magic” (2015), emblematic shapes and patterns emerge and offer the viewer an opportunity to extract narrative meaning from the pain African Americans have endured. “Magic’s” visage could be the night sky above the pyramids of Egypt with a pale yellow atmosphere floating overhead, doves, and tapestry, but the lack of specificity both complicates the viewer’s interpretation and sets it free. The somehow harmonious discord of characters and perspective present in “It’s Like Magic, Ceremony,” “Procession,” and “A Kind of Witness” (all 2015) provides infinite meaning through a seemingly endless combination of variables.

In a similar vein, the abstraction of Christina McPhee explores translation of internal and external environments. The drawings presented in this show, “Su descendencia el fuego / Its Descendants the Fire” (2019) and “Su origen la naive / Its Origin Snowflakes” (2019), are of ink on hand made Iwano Shikonshi purple washi paper that were created during her time on indigenous land belonging to the Crow and Lakota nations in Wyoming. McPhee records not only the improvisational, unknown, natural state of its mountainous geography but also the violent impact of nature and man-made events, such as earthquakes, fires, and oil spills.

In a time of changing climate, social unrest, and a deadly virus, joy can be a form of resistance. Lava Thomas invites the viewer to participate in the collective memory, history, music, and sense of peace in the exhibition. “Clouds of Joy” (2021), a collage of cobalt blue tambourines reminiscent of those used in Pentecostal worship, includes the lyrics from the hymn “His Eye Is On The Sparrow” inscribed on two of them. The lines “I sing because I’m happy” and “I sing because I’m free,” written on black leather between cerulean blue acrylic discs and acrylic mirrors, cannot be seen from far away but become clearer as the viewer approaches.

At the back of the gallery, behind “Clouds of Joy,” black drapes open to a dark room with three red-cushioned pews lined up in front of a five-channel video installation consisting of five Evangelical Christian Pastors shouting, praying, and crying out. The work, called “Prayer Warriors: The Survival Performances” (2016), is by Zina Saro-Wiwa and takes place during her time in the Niger Delta. The pastors are calling and waiting on the Lord for change amidst the current tumultuous atmosphere in that region. To watch these pastors calling out to God in Ogoni (the local language), English and in tongues elicits a sense of humanity and empathy, opening the viewer to transformation, a major theme of the entire show.

Angela Groom is an artist and arts writer based in Southern California. She is a graduate of Providence Christian College and the NYC Semester in Journalism program at The King’s College in NYC.

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