Showcasing the art and ritual of the African and African-diaspora religions


Christianity is a range of beliefs and practices devoted to the commemoration and invocation of Jesus of Nazareth, who is believed to have come back to life after being executed by the Roman rulers of the eastern Levant some 2000 years ago. By training, he was a carpenter. Christians typically believe that Jesus was the son of their high god with a human woman. Thus they also typically regard him as an earthly embodiment of the high god. This form of embodiment bears comparison to spirit possession in other Afro-Atlantic traditions.

The northeast African kingdoms of Egypt and Ethiopia and the republics that have succeeded them are ancient capitals of Christianity. Christianity did not become popular in western Africa until the 19th century, but numerous western African and African-diaspora populations have adopted Christianity since the 15th century, interpreting it in terms of antecedent African beliefs, iconography, and practices. Among the results are Brazilian Candomblé, Cuban Santería/Ocha, Caribbean Espiritismo, Haitian Vodou, Congolese Kimbanguism, the Yoruba “white-garment” churches, African-American Pentecostalism, and, arguably, Pentecostalism all over the world.

Buildings, paintings on cloth or on buildings, and figurative sculptures are the most celebrated forms of Christian art. Many of Christianity’s most famous sacred buildings are shaped like crosses, and much of its sacred art is devoted to the commemoration of Jesus’s live and death and to the invocation of divine presence through images of Jesus, his mother, his worldly companions, or historical figures who suffered in the defense of Christianity. Some of the same artwork vividly depicts opposition to Jesus and his rules in the person of a being called the “Devil.” Whereas the Christian high god is believed to dwell in the sky, the Devil is believed to dwell underground. However, each of these spirits is believed to possess people on Earth and to embody his agency. Indeed, both spirits can possess a single person at the same time. Individual human lives and human history as a whole are interpreted as a struggle between these two spirits. Christians believe that praying, fasting, singing, reading certain books, and, in much of the black Atlantic, dancing can help them to embody Jesus and exorcise the Devil, and thus appeal for worldly healing, victory in competition with other living people, and a posthumous reward in the sky.

In the Christian art that circulates in circum-Atlantic society, the Devil often looks vaguely like an African, while Jesus and his spirit allies look like Europeans. In Christian iconography, the depiction of Jesus and his spirit allies as black is typically regarded as ironic. The Christian objects in the CAAAR collection are chiefly objects that embody this irony or reflect black Christians’ distinctive representations of divinity.