‘Sankofa: Rebirth’ Art Exhibit Explores Themes of Race, Faith

Artist Steve Prince’s prints grab the viewer’s attention and don’t let go. They are both celebrative and confrontive, with a complexity as layered as the ongoing issues of race they explore. His exhibit “Sankofa: Rebirth” will be on display October 19 through November 28 in the art gallery at Everybody’s Coffee, an award-winning business operated by Jesus People USA Covenant Church. There will be an opening reception from 6 to 8 p.m. tomorrow at the gallery.

Prince’s work is not connected with the Covenant’s Sankofa bus journeys to historic sites of the civil rights movement, but it does share the intent of promoting reconciliation. “Sankofa” is a West African word meaning go back and get, a journey toward knowledge, looking backward while moving forward.

“I think the Covenant is doing phenomenal work with the program, in spreading a gospel of faith and justice,” Prince said in a recent email.

The pieces in the exhibit are linoleum cuts, woodcuts, and lithographs. “I loved the history of print, and its use in political, social, and communal efforts to raise awareness, to challenge damaging powers, as a documentation of history, and the ability to speak truth through the art,” Prince says.

The works are large, meant to be engaged with. “Communal Resurrection” is four feet tall and 40 feet long. Prince used five-by-eight-foot sheets of plywood as printing blocks that were inked and pressed into paper with a commercial steamroller, the kind used to smooth asphalt.

Prince is currently the director of engagement and distinguished artist in residence at the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William and Mary. More information and images can be found at his gallery website.

 

Jane Hertenstein, co-curator of the gallery at Everyone’s Coffee, recently interviewed Prince about his life, faith, and art.

How has the African American experience informed your work—especially some of the themes?

The African American experience is my life. It is who I am, the group I identify with most strongly. But I am a man who has lived in the context of several cultures, and those cultures have informed my work and philosophy about creating, about being human. In regard to the specific nature of the African American experience, I am a descendant of slaves, but I also share the spirit of the African turned American.

I have not been stripped of my home, I have not been forced to occupy a strange land, I have not felt the sting of the whip, I have not felt the strangle of the hangman noose, nor the separation of family, nor the rape of my mother by those who conspired to create a world where I am defined as chattel.

As an African American, I have felt the constricting tentacles of slavery upon my people and I have dedicated my art to address those issues with the hope of continuing the struggle against inequality wherever it rears its ugly head. I am interested in showing black love, creativity, imagination, and cultural rhythms that have shaped this planet in spite of the conditions that tried to erase our humanity and culture toward conformity and assimilation.

You tackle big subjects—classic human struggle, mythologies, Christian iconography—indeed, your pieces are not about one thing but about many things.

The subjects I address are ones that have been before humankind since inception. Christ and his teaching is at the center of my work. I use a design mechanism called “dense-pack” where I push the viewer to encounter several things all at once, and they have to sift through the image like an archeologist to extract meaning and make sense of the controlled chaos.

The art is meant to be viewed multiple times and meditated upon. When encountered at different cognitive points in one’s life, the work has different meanings and understanding. The artwork is fixed, but we are ever evolving and in a state of becoming. Thus, the art is being reborn daily, and so too should we be reborn and in pursuit of a deeper understanding of self and everything around us.

How does your work speak to our particular point in history?

I challenge the notion of being at a particular point because this moment is a continuum of the scars of our forefathers. In many instances, we are reifying those scars and unfortunately creating new ones because America has a nasty wound that has not healed since its inception.

Look back over each decade and tell me which one was not wrought with unimaginable challenges and obstacles to community and oneness. We have inherited a stained bill of sale, and we are passing the stains on to the next generation consciously and unconsciously. I am not so much speaking to those events but to the spirit that underlies all of the chaos in our lives. I am trying to speak to the root.

You’ve been described as an art evangelist. Are you an evangelist for art or an evangelist that uses art to get across a religious message?

I have been described as an art evangelist and I have accepted the calling. I know that I am flawed, but I strive to better myself and be more conscious and responsible of my agency.

I liken myself to Christ and his disciples, and his call upon my life to go out and be fishers of people. What was keen in that exchange is that the disciples were a group of people who were flawed, but they were disciplined in their submission and study to understand the truth and dedication to spread the gospel.

Everywhere I have gone, the art has touched someone, and many times it is not the work but the experience of interacting. It is the sharing and connecting that at times is more powerful than the art. The art is a tool for engagement, and a place to rest, reflect, and prepare for action.

How has your faith impacted your art?

My art and faith are one and the same. The art is a physical manifestation of what is in my heart—it is like the air I breathe. When presenting my work, I am not interested in only sharing the process. I want to tell a story, as if I invited you into my kitchen and had a conversation over a cup of coffee.

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About the Author

Stan Friedman is the news and online editor for the Covenant Companion and is grateful for the opportunity to serve in a job that combines his newspaper and pastoral ministry experience. He has been to 15 Bruce Springsteen concerts in four cities and listened to “Thunder Road” an average of at least once a day for 41 years.

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