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‘Spirit In The Dark’ Exhibition Of Religion In Black Music Opens At Smithsonian

It features unseen images of such figureheads as Aretha Franklin, Duke Ellington, and Marvin Gaye.

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Marvin Gaye - Photo: Jim Britt/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images
Marvin Gaye - Photo: Jim Britt/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

A new exhibition of photographs and arfifacts from the extensive collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture has opened at the museum’s Washington headquarters.

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Spirit in the Dark: Religion in Black Music, Activism, and Popular Culture features unseen objects from its permanent collection, including images of such figureheads of the African American experience as Aretha Franklin, Duke Ellington, Marvin Gaye, Angela Davis, Malcolm X, Maya Angelou, Reverend Ike, and Jesse Jackson. It’s on display in the Earl W. and Amanda Stafford Center for African American Media Arts (CAAMA) gallery for the next year, until November 2023.

The display’s rare photographs and stories are drawn in part from the archives of Ebony and Jet magazines, and explores the impact that religion made on their lives and the wider Black community. Featured images come from the recently-acquired Johnson Publishing Company archive, jointly owned by the museum and the Getty Research Institute. There are 37 framed photographs from the JPC archive and some 25 objects from the museum’s collection.

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“The role of the Black press has always been pivotal in amplifying African American social and religious life,” says Eric Lewis Williams, museum curator of religion. “Ebony and Jet captured and granted rare insight into the lives of influential Black figures, often revealing how religion has inspired, undergirded, and animated the work of Black artists, activists and changemakers.

“Through these photographs, objects and the larger stories they represent, we are able to highlight the tremendous diversity within the Black religious experience and bear witness to the role of religion in the Black struggle for human dignity and social equality.”

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The three sections explored in the exhibition are Blurred Lines: Holy/Profane, looking at how key artists cross the boundaries between the holy and the profane; Bearing Witness: Protest/Praise, examining Black religious leaders who both tended to the spiritual needs of their people and were activists for social protest; and Lived Realities: Suffering/Hope, which traverses the creative, social, and political endeavors of Black artists and activists.

Listen to a curated playlist featuring artists included in Spirit in the Dark, and experience the exhibition virtually with a companion digital exhibition on the Searchable Museum website.

Read more about the Spirit In The Dark exhibition.

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