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Clearly, if one considers the iconography of the St. Luke widow program in its entirety, one discovers visual correlations with scholarly descriptions of African American culture and history. Throughout all four series, the artist represents the continent of Africa and references a variety of African and African American cultural productions including sculpture, textiles, easel paintings, oral and written folklore, architecture, and photography. However, what amount of the rich content implied in Lacy's window designs can be understood by a viewer who is unfamiliar with her extensive iconography? In order to evaluate how accessible Lacy's imagery is to the average viewer, we first need to identify and describe those elements in the artist's designs that are emblematic of commonly held notions about African American identity and culture. Throughout the window program, Lacy includes signs for African American history, culture, and experience as a means of representing a greater amount of content and meaning than the limited narrative space of each window permits.

Emblematic images of biblical characters, famous personalities in black diaspora history and generalized representations of Africa and the shared experience of racial oppression are aimed at defining the biblical and historical subject matter as distinctly African American. For example, Lacy presents portraits of important African American personalities, such as Frederick Douglas, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Nelson Mandela in the balcony windows to represent entire narrative chapters in African American history and the creativity and strength of the African American character.

In the biblical representations in the Out of Africa Series, Lacy alludes to Africa and slavery in general terms. For instance, even if the viewer is unaware that actual 17th century typographical maps of Egypt and Ethiopia guided Lacy's representations of the background landscape of the windows in the upper register of this series, the images of the Pyramids are easily recognizable as a visual sign for Egypt and, by association, Africa. Thus, Africa becomes a location for the events of the Old Testament as well as the origins of the Christian religion, which is symbolized by the representation of the Crucifixion in the windows below. Moreover, the Pyramids as monumental architectural and artistic achievements of the past stand for the glorious aspects of Egyptian civilization and define Africa in positive terms. Historian and Sociologist Sinclair Drake has noted that throughout their history in the New World, people of African descent have sought out values and historical reality. Specifically, he points out, “Crucial in the Afro-Americans coping process has been their identification, over a time span of more than two centuries, with ancient Egypt and Ethiopia as symbols of black initiative and success long before their enslavement on the plantations of the New World.”1

Likewise, generalized representations of racial oppression are embodied in images of a broken chain, a lynching rope, and two women picking cotton. These visual symbols signal the historical experience and remembrance of slavery as the definitive narrative of racism and the triumph by black Americans over racial oppression. Furthermore, in order to align these visual signs of black experience with Christian narratives and doctrine, Lacy often juxtaposes them with well known symbols from Christian iconography. In the following discussion, I term the resulting imagery and its meaning for black and white audiences as Afrocentric icons.

If we want to consider Lacy's imagery as an innovation within the history of Christian iconography, it might be useful to first consider her work in relation to the Early Christian development of a system of signs and symbols to represent the beliefs of a new religion. In Andre Grabar's study of the origins of Christian iconography, he points out that the early Christians could only create a new visual/symbolic language by using well-known and available elements within the current sign system.2 In a similar way, Lacy uses familiar images from Christianity, African American history, folklore, and popular culture to construct her new Afrocentric religious imagery.

One of the best examples of the way in which Lacy fashions Afrocentric versions of standard biblical themes is in her Crucifixion Cycle, windows 8-14 in the Out of Africa Series. In these windows, Lacy defines the Crucifixion in terms of cultural difference, a marginal status in society, and to use the words of cultural historian Paul Gilroy, “the lived and remembered experience of racial terror.”3 Although the St. Luke window program includes a number of biblical stories represented from a black perspective, the Crucifixion is perhaps the best model for explaining how Lacy reorients her imagery to read Afrocentrically. The image of Christ on the cross is perhaps the most representative symbol within Christian iconography of the central tenet of the faith, including the notion that God and Jesus are white. Thus, the Crucifixion is also the most powerful example of the firm intention of the artist and her patron to redefine standards of traditional religious representation and belief within the visual imagery of St. Luke Church.

In the Crucifixion Cycle, Lacy depicts a relationship between Christ's passion and the shared African American experience of racial terror by juxtaposing the crucifix with several visual references to slavery and lynching. In one of the three crucifixion scenes in this cycle, the artist portrays a crucified figure hanging from a cross that is draped with a lynching rope reference image in left sidebar. By joining the crucifix and the lynching rope, Lacy draws together two seemingly unrelated narratives, one ancient and biblical, the other historical and modern. The juxtaposition of these two visual symbols transforms Lacy's depiction of the Crucifixion into a new Afrocentric icon. The identification of a Christ-like figure with the experience of racial terror is emphasized by an image that referencing slavery in the adjacent window. Here, Lacy portrays two women who receive the news of the Crucifixion while picking cotton in a field.”4

The pairing of various images in these windows that are each representative of a larger idea or narrative is a clear example of the use of metonymy..”5 For example in the crucifixion scene we have been considering, both the crucifix and the lynching rope function as visual metonyms which are representative of broader, more abstract notions within Christian iconography as well as African American history and consciousness. The larger theological significance of Christ's passion, his physical suffering for the redemption of human kind, is symbolized by the crucifixion which in turn can be reduced to the visual sign of the crucifix. In a similar manner, the image of the lynching rope acts as a condensed visual indicator for a history of “racial terror”, the brutal murder of African American males through hanging wrongly justified through the racist institutions of slavery and segregation.6

Endnotes

Click to order a copy of: Forging a Vision of African American History.

©Julie Levin Caro, 1996. All rights reserved.
Contact: Julie Levin Caro at jcaro@mhonline.net

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