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In search of Black Catholic art

Black Catholic art is hard to come by, and defining it is a task unto itself. Nate Tinner-Williams explores the history and speaks with young creators breaking into the field.

Depiction of St. Joseph by Deacon Alex Moore, a former Josephite religious brother who died in 2019. (Josephite Pastoral Center)

The quest to find Black Catholic art can be a harrowing one. Catholic art is dime a dozen, even here in the heavily Protestant United States, and it could even be said that in recent years, visual depictions of Black saints and holy figures are becoming more mainstream. More often than not, however, such art does not come at the hands of African-American creators.

Here and there you may find a hidden gem—notable Black-origin devotional pieces are scattered throughout the country—but they are often one-off jobs for a Black parish or ministry from an artist with no website, no store, and sometimes no evident trace at all. Artists' names are often elusive, leaving interested onlookers scratching their heads.

Even so, I decided to gather together what I could find, the fruit of research done over several years and a few recent conversations with artists, some of whom are Catholic and others who simply followed the Spirit and created pieces honoring the “ancestors of upright heart” (to borrow a term from indigenous Black Catholic spirituality).

It seems the Christmas season is the perfect time to discuss such an important aspect of Christianity, given that iconography—especially of the inculturated form—is conceptually based in the reality of the Incarnation.

One of the most accessible resources for Black Catholic art is the Josephite Pastoral Center, a hub for Black Catholic devotional resources, including Christmas cards, calendars, posters, and—yes—explicitly Black Catholic art. Though much of the work is outsourced, a good deal of the center’s classic Black depictions of Jesus, Joseph, Mary, and other holy figures can be sourced to the late Deacon Alex Moore, who worked for the JPC when he was a Josephite religious brother.

This portrait of Sister Thea Bowman, of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, painted by Alexander Moore, was given as a gift to her friend, Donald Edwards, assistant superintendent of schools at the Archdiocese of Miami. Sister Thea has been declared a Servant of God, and is one of six Black Catholic candidates for canonization.
Depiction of Servant of God Thea Bowman by Deacon Alex Moore, a former Josephite religious brother who died in 2019. (Archdiocese of Miami)

One Black artist whose Catholic art once made national news was DeVon Cunningham, who was commissioned to paint the dome of St. Cecilia Catholic Church in Detroit in 1968—shortly after the Black Catholic Movement was spawned in the city by the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus. Cunningham’s striking Black Christ image, featuring Black angels flanking the resurrected Lord, made the front page of Ebony Magazine—and later the New York Times.

A household name in the art world, the late Louisville, Kentucky native Houston Conwill is best known for his Black-focused sculptures, but he was also responsible for the stunning stained glass work at one of his childhood parishes, the historically Black St. Augustine Catholic Church.

Other veteran artists of the Black Catholic art world include New Orleanians like Vernon Dobard, whose unique “Dance of Holy Innocence” altarpiece at a local parish was restored earlier this year. The late John T. Scott of New Orleans also made numerous devotional pieces, and a museum named in his honor was opened this fall by the Helis Foundation.

Upriver from the Crescent City, the self-trained folk artist Clementine Hunter gained fame in the mid to late 20th century for her depictions of Black Creole life in the Cane River region of Louisiana. By the end of her life her pieces fetched thousands of dollars apiece, and an original of her best-known religious works—centered on the crucifixion—today is worth nearly $30,000.

A noted Catholic sculptor, Xavier University of Louisiana graduate Frank Hayden, was also in high demand during his lifetime. He was known for designing some of the first public monuments to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as well as a statue presented by the Black Catholic community to Pope John Paul II during his visit to Louisiana in 1987.

It could be said that Hayden's work came in the vein of his 19th-century Black Catholic predecessor, the Rome-based Edmonia Lewis, who was the first African American sculptor to gain international fame.

"St. Martin de Porres" by Frank Hayden, presented to Pope John Paul II in 1987. (Frank Hayden Foundation)

Wayman Scott IV, who works part-time in clay out of the Baltimore area, is a full-time grief counselor, but has completed pieces including an Afrocentric Pietà sculpture and uses his artistry as a commentary on justice issues and for outreach to troubled youth.

The Houston-based Al Saulso, a gallery owner who writes Catholic icons in a semi-Byzantine style, has also produced a number of works depicting Black saints and saint-to-be, including Venerable Augustus Tolton and Servant of God Thea Bowman.

Like Saulso, many Black artists depicting Catholic figures use online platforms that help distribute their work more efficiently, offering various options for purchase. Even there, discerning who is behind what artwork is sometimes complicated, as not all users on these platforms reveal their identities.

On Etsy, arguably the most popular e-commerce site for handmade art, the Atlanta-based artist under the username BlackJesusArt offers a litany of Catholic-influenced pieces depicting a Black Christ, including “The Sacred Heart of Jesus” and “Holy Communion.”

“I am not Catholic, but a Spirit-filled Christian believer nonetheless,” he told BCM.

“My Sacred Heart piece, and Mother Mary with Baby Jesus, was created to inspire Catholic parishioners to keep the faith under our Father God.”

Vernon Adams, a Mississippi-born Black Catholic now based in Dallas, has painted a number of notable works in recent years, including “Gladiolus in the Valley,” a depiction of Servant of God Thea Bowman, which has been installed in churches and schools across the country. In November, his new icon of St. Augustine of Hippo was unveiled during a special ceremony at Villanova University for Black Catholic History Month.

Vernon Adams at Villanova University in November with his new icon "An Unlikely Aquilegia: North African Saint of Hippo". (Villanova Campus Ministry/Instagram)

One of several more low-key artists whose heavily Catholic-inspired work is available online is Clara Spencer Broussard, who uploaded “Black Jesus Sacred Heart” in 2010 alongside her other work. Just three years later, Broussard passed away in Beaumont, Texas, where she had connections with Our Mother of Mercy Catholic Church. (She was funeralized in the Baptist tradition.)

Unsurprisingly, the digital era has brought a number of younger creators to the fore, and it seems that their work is truly the future of Black Catholic art. Alongside Saulso and Adams, another talented member of that demographic is Holle Wade, a Hope College grad and former Mellon Scholar whose work runs the gamut from painting to writing to photography.

She says her inspiration to depict figures in the style of her own culture comes from a deep devotion to the prayer and Visio Divina.

“The Rosary is hugely influential to me as an artist, it's a place where God has given me many images and allows my imagination to grow,” she said.

“There are many Black Saints and Holy people that it would be a disservice not to represent them. Many artists are tapping into that rich diversity and as an artist myself I'm excited to see where that goes. As an artist, I think that it's important to have representation in artwork but it's just as important to have representation in who is making that work.”

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).

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