Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 15, 2018
Kymberly N. Pinder Painting the Gospel: Black Public Art and Religion in Chicago Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2016. 224 pp.; 60 color ills.; 8 b/w ills. Paper $29.95 (9780252081439)

In her book Painting the Gospel: Black Public Art and Religion in Chicago, Kymberly N. Pinder uses religious imagery affiliated with black churches in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago’s South Side as a case study to explore the ways that African American artists and pastors have collaborated to insist upon self-representation of and for their congregations. This short book manages to be very narrow and specific in its discussion of a handful of churches in one of Chicago’s traditionally black neighborhoods and simultaneously massive in scope as it traces the neighborhood’s religious-art production over the course of the twentieth century and relates the development of the imagery to its political, spiritual, and musical contexts. In this way, Pinder’s book is incredibly rich in its interdisciplinarity, and it is broadly relevant to larger discussions of African American art, literature, music, and activism (to name a few realms) outside of Chicago.

Pinder uses the religious imagery in black churches from several denominations to examine her idea of “empathetic realism,” or the ability of this art to empower its audiences. She contends that empathetic realism is achieved in these churches by a combination of factors, including first and foremost the reclamation of the Christian faith for black believers through the portrayal of religious figures, such as Christ and the Virgin Mary, for example, as African American. Allowing the congregants to see themselves within biblical narratives and Christian history had the power of activating the viewers, making it easier for them to identify with their religion and empowering them to challenge the exclusionary practices of the dominant religious sects and their interpretations of religious imagery. For example, Pinder discusses the multiracial religious murals by William E. Scott in Pilgrim Baptist Church. The six murals were painted between 1936 and 1937, and all depict versions of Christ, apostles, saints, and angels in varying skin tones from fair to brown. Pinder asserts that the idea of a black Christ was radical in the 1930s, and these images corresponded with the message of the church’s pastor, Junius C. Austin. Together, the pastor and the paintings worked to instill black pride into the congregation and community through their engagement with empathetic realism. In Bronzeville churches specifically, as well as other African American churches nationally, African Americans are thus forcefully moved from the margins to the center of the Christian narrative and thereby are allowed to take ownership of their faith, despite its links to European colonialism. 

Pinder spins a complex and nuanced narrative as she weaves together the images that created empathetic realism produced by and for the black public in these churches alongside the development of the black liberation theology and its core of political activism, which has historically been linked to black churches. The religious imagery that included black figures as central players; the gospel music that was created in concert with the imagery; the political activism of the pastors and their active engagement with the fight to subvert racist ideology; and the Afrocentric decor of many of the churches that created a touchstone for the community within the African diaspora all worked in concert to empower the black congregations they served. These images were one part of a multifaceted attempt to instill pride and self-respect into a marginalized community that was struggling with the effects of inequality, poverty, and segregation.

The goals of Painting the Gospel are clearly delineated in the introduction: (1) to unpack how public art incites conversation and as such becomes an active agent within the community; (2) to bring attention to these marginalized images that have been so important within their community but have received very little scholarly discussion; and (3) to contextualize the artworks within their actual spaces through the inclusion of three appendixes that have maps and outlines for walking tours through Bronzeville to enable readers to visit the churches discussed throughout the text and understand the images within their intended context.

The book’s organization is easy to follow, and Pinder’s writing style is straightforward and clear, despite the fact that she discusses complex ideas across several disciplines. She achieves this, in part, through the bountiful color illustrations throughout the text. Since readers outside of Chicago may be completely unfamiliar with the art discussed, the abundance of illustrations assists the reader in understanding how these images function. The illustrations are in line with the text, and therefore easy to reference while reading. Each chapter centers on a different church, the activities of the pastor and church community, and how the art functions within those particular spaces. In chapter 3, for example, Pinder discusses the Afrocentric imagery of the artist Joseph Evans Jr. and how his works aligned with the black liberation theology of pastor Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. at Trinity United Church of Christ. Furthermore, the organization of the book also contributes to its clarity. Each chapter represents a case study of one or two artists working in specific black churches from different denominations, advancing the chronology from the early twentieth century in the first chapter through the end of the century in the fifth. Each chapter outlines the artists’ careers, training, commissions, political engagement, and relationships with the pastors and communities of the churches. By focusing on this series of small case studies, Pinder is able to illustrate specific instances of how these examples of religious public art were conceptualized in Bronzeville’s black churches and how the ideologies of African American Christianity evolved and changed over time and within the contexts of different denominations. Chapter 5 exemplifies this range through Pinder’s discussion of contemporary, urban, and street art featuring religious themes in the work of the artist Damon Lamar Reed. Reed’s art features a mixture of religious figures alongside recognizable contemporary figures that could exist in the neighborhood. Furthermore, he uses a variety of media for his art, such as public murals outside community arts centers and churches and smaller oil paintings reproduced on T-shirts. Pinder’s interpretations are so exhaustively outlined in her examples that it becomes easy for readers to extrapolate outward and apply her interpretations to African American public art and visual culture nationwide, even outside of the religious context that is the focus of her study, making this book extremely relevant for many different areas of American and African American studies.

Painting the Gospel uses religious imagery from Chicago’s black churches across the twentieth century to exemplify the power of empathetic realism and to illustrate how these images were able to engage their intended audiences in order to actively incorporate them as central players within Christianity. The art was one link in a larger chain that insisted on moving the African American congregants from the margins to the center, thereby making a strong political statement about the community’s importance—in sharp contradiction to the way its residents and their concerns were frequently ignored by local and national politicians. Pinder has uncovered and carefully contextualized the works of little-known artists, both academically trained and self-taught, replicating for her readers the work that the artists themselves accomplished—and insisting on the importance of this religious art within the story of black Chicago’s ongoing fight for equality. Moreover, Pinder continues to reproduce her idea of “empathetic realism” through her inclusion of the tours in the appendixes. By offering her readers the opportunity to visit the churches and artworks discussed throughout the text, Pinder actively engages her audience and empowers it to further understand how these examples of public art communicate with their public. 

Wendy Castenell
Assistant Professor, Department of Art and Art History, University of Alabama