An Intriguing Discovery
In 2012 researchers discovered an intriguing group of prints in the Billy Graham Center Museum archives. Lying unobserved in file drawers for many years, these graphic works depicting African American worship and spiritual life came to light unexpectedly as researchers looked through Museum files to assemble another exhibition. The newly discovered prints dated from the Civil War up through the mid-20thcentury. They had been collected by Billy Graham Center Museum Director James Stambaugh, who acquired them as part of the Museum’s effort to collect artworks and artifacts of visual culture that represent the breadth of American evangelical religious life. Largely the product of white artists and white publishers, the prints offered a rough visual record of white perception of black Christian religious life. The prints invite an inquiry into the seeds of understanding and misunderstanding between contemporary white and African American Christian people.
Wheaton College President Philip Ryken recognized the importance of such an inquiry for the College and asked the President’s Art Commission (PAC) to start a process of consultation to define a rationale for an exhibition of these prints. In conversation with interest groups comprised of students, staff, and faculty, the President’s Art Commission worked for several years developing plans for Wrestle On, Jacob. The resulting exhibition features prints produced by individual artists and mass-produced prints by commercial publishers. The prints offer insight about art and artistic processes, and they also provide an opportunity to study how visual images play a part in the way a dominant culture attempts to process and understand divergent cultural practices that coexist within it. Wrestle On, Jacob offers a visual starting point for dialogue about race and religion in America.
The Story Behind the Name
The choice of Wrestle On, Jacob, the title of a Negro Spiritual, as the name for this exhibition underlines the Presidential Art Commission’s recognition that the historical struggle for understanding between black and white religious people is ongoing. The struggle becomes particularly poignant when both cultures share the same religious faith – yet extrude that faith through historically different social, economic, and political realities. In Wrestle On, Jacob, black social, economic, and political experience is manifested as a visual theology depicted through forms of preaching, praying, singing, dress, congregational and family life, and in the architectural space of worship.
An Imbalanced Perspective
The prints represent largely white interpretations of these forms and manners. Forms of black worship and spiritual expression have been highly fascinating to white visual artists who have attempted to engage and comprehend them through works of art. The isolated number of artworks by African American artists in Wrestle On, Jacob is due in part to the time period during which the images were produced. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries white art culture frequently showed interest in black culture, but it did not necessarily reciprocate by giving serious recognition to the art of black people. That reality has changed. Today black artists and publishers abound, and their work is highly regarded. Still Wrestle On, Jacob shows us an imbalance in perspective that has been a determining factor in the misunderstandings that continue to haunt race relations in America. Wrestle On, Jacob thus represents one of many roads that we must walk as we seek to comprehend the historical character of black/white relations in the American Church.