Collection 1880s–1940s

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Archibald John Motley Jr. Tongues (Holy Rollers). 1929 576

Oil on canvas, 29 1/4 × 36 1/8" (74.3 × 91.8 cm). Bequest of Janice H. Levin (by exchange). © Archibald John Motley Jr.. Courtesy of the Artist's Estate.

NARRATOR: Davarian Baldwin.

DAVARIAN BALDWIN: Gospel music, or the gospel sound as a form of worship, I mean, what a lot of lay people don’t know is that in ‘29, the music that we know today as gospel music wasn’t fully developed as a standalone style, and form, and genre of music, of worship.

Before this, the dominant form of worship was a much more kind of reverent, particularly in large black churches of Chicago and other places, old line form of worship. But here, we have this more kind of working class hybrid form of worship that is being captured visually and taking shape. So, literally, you have the body swing in this piece as if meant to embody a new sonic articulation of black worship and spiritual affect.

Motley is depicting this phenomena ongoing, but there still is some high-level ambivalence in play here for Motley the Catholic, Motley the insider/outsider. If you notice, a lot of the figures in the piece have exaggerated red lips in the Minstrel style, but at the same time, the band, which you wouldn’t have in, say, a more traditional form of worship, they’re in tuxedos.

Then on the left-hand and right-hand side, you have stage curtains. So, is this a Minstrel show, a rural church, or an urban ballroom theater, you’re not quite sure. He never lets you rest on a solid category because of his surreal approach to black life, that he is an artist. He’s creative. He’s playing with a mixture of tropes and experiences that all compose the black experience.