Traveling exhibit, fund part of initiative to promote diversity in religious art

Habacuc Samuel Bessiake, a 2021 graduate of the College of Creative Studies in Detroit, explains to an observer his depiction of Sr. Thea Bowman, whom he researched and looked at prior images, before coming up with his own depiction. Twelve depictions were revealed at St. Suzanne/Our Lady Gate of Heaven Parish on Nov. 21 as part of a traveling exhibit meant to promote Black Catholic representation in sacred art. (Photos by Dan Meloy | Detroit Catholic)

Archdiocese, Catholic Foundation of Michigan team up with College of Creative Studies to support creation of art depicting minorities

DETROIT — Images and depictions are ubiquitous in the Catholic Church.

Across the world, paintings and stained-glass windows show the rich tradition and diversity that exists in God’s kingdom. But often, those depictions don’t necessarily reflect the faces of congregants in the local pews.

The Archdiocese of Detroit — centered in the largest Black-majority city in the country — is working to change that by partnering with the Catholic Foundation of Michigan and the College of Creative Studies to celebrate cultural artwork with two new initiatives.

On Nov. 21, the archdiocese’s offices of Cultural Ministries and Evangelical Charity announced the launch of the Sacred Cultural Artwork Fund during a “Celebrate Black Catholics and their Artists” event at St. Suzanne/Our Lady Gate of Heaven Parish on Detroit's west side.

Twelve artists from the College of Creative Studies painted depictions of famous Black Catholics in the United States — from those on the road to sainthood, such as Sr. Thea Bowman, to famous lay Catholics such as late NBA star Kobe Bryant.

Left to right, Archie McPherson, Habacuc Samuel Bessiake, Nicole Robison, Nevaeh Nesbitt, Joye Ofei and Richard Patton display certificates they received from the Archdiocese of Detroit's Office of Cultural Ministries for their work in the "Celebrate Black Catholics and their Artists" event at St. Suzanne/Our Lady Gate of Heaven Parish.
Left to right, Archie McPherson, Habacuc Samuel Bessiake, Nicole Robison, Nevaeh Nesbitt, Joye Ofei and Richard Patton display certificates they received from the Archdiocese of Detroit's Office of Cultural Ministries for their work in the "Celebrate Black Catholics and their Artists" event at St. Suzanne/Our Lady Gate of Heaven Parish.

The depictions will be part of a traveling roadshow parishes across the Archdiocese of Detroit can host to launch conversations about race and inclusion in the Catholic Church. The project is part of a wider effort to promote more art in the Church featuring minority cultures and figures.

“Detroit, in a special way, is where the fullness and the beauty of our faith is expressed through the variety of cultures that make up the Church,” Chris Leach, director of evangelical charity for the archdiocese, told Detroit Catholic. "We have a very diverse archdiocese; everyone sees that. We wanted to make sure our artwork, our sacred spaces are reflective of that fullness of beauty that we have.”

The Office of Cultural Ministries worked with the Catholic Foundation of Michigan in creating the Sacred Cultural Artwork Fund, where donors can support the restoration and creation of sacred art in the archdiocese that depicts men and women from various faith backgrounds to better reflect that diversity.

Last year, St. Suzanne/Our Lady Gate of Heaven Parish partnered with the archdiocese and the College of Creative Studies by inviting artists to help young people create depictions of prominent Black Catholics.

“These young artists from the city of Detroit spent a year researching the contributions of the people they were painting and of the Catholic faith,” Leach said. “In that process, they learned a lot about the Catholic tradition, but also their own cultural heritage and how that has informed the Catholic tradition.”

St. Suzanne/Our Lady Gate of Heaven Parish reached out to the College of Creative Studies to recruit students to depict prominent Black Catholics as a way to have more representation in sacred art. The portraits will be part of a traveling exhibit meant to spark conversations about Black representation in the Church.
St. Suzanne/Our Lady Gate of Heaven Parish reached out to the College of Creative Studies to recruit students to depict prominent Black Catholics as a way to have more representation in sacred art. The portraits will be part of a traveling exhibit meant to spark conversations about Black representation in the Church.

The project has its roots in the neighboring St. Suzanne/Cody Rouge Community Resource Center, which opened in 2018 to help youth and families by empowering them with education opportunities.

The students' creations were revealed in August of this year, said Steve Wasko, coordinator of the St. Suzanne/Cody Rouge Center.

“From Day 1, we knew we could not keep it to ourselves, that we needed to share it with the wider archdiocesan community," Wasko said. "We needed to share it with Black Catholics to inspire them, and we needed to share it with white Catholics to spur uncomfortable conversations about race and racial attitudes in our Church.”

Larry Lunsford, professor and assistant director of education and outreach for the College of Creative Studies' Community Arts Partnerships, said the college jumped at the opportunity to help.

“When we were contacted by Steve Wasko and the other great staff here at St. Suzanne, they were looking for a way to rally the Black Catholics in the community who have not strayed away, but were not actively participating,” Lunsford said. “They needed some better imagery to let them know they have equal footing here. It inspired the students to do some research.”

Lunsford said art can have a powerful impact in terms of representation and a sense of belonging in the Church and the community.

Members of the St. Suzanne/Our Lady Gate of Heaven Parish community extend their hands in charismatic prayer over the artists who took part in the "Celebrate Black Catholics and their Artists" series.
Members of the St. Suzanne/Our Lady Gate of Heaven Parish community extend their hands in charismatic prayer over the artists who took part in the "Celebrate Black Catholics and their Artists" series.

“Representation is very important,” Lunsford added. “No one wants to be excluded; everyone wants to feel part of the great American experience.”

The dual announcements at St. Suzanne/Our Lady of Gate of Heaven with the creation of the Sacred Cultural Artwork Fund and the traveling Black Catholic and their Artists show

The fund and the roadshow are a sign of the archdiocese's commitment to promote more diversity in religious art, said Auxiliary Bishop Gerard W. Battersby, who was on hand to congratulate and bless the artists along with St. Suzanne/Our Lady Gate of Heaven's pastor, Fr. Victor Clore.

“The Catholic faith tradition can only be fully appreciated when the full body of Christ is presented to the world,” Bishop Battersby said. “As you know, there is a great division in the world because we often struggle to see the values of our neighbors. With the dedication of people of faith to unity, like the team at St. Suzanne/Our Lady Gate of Heaven, they will capture the fullness of truth in their artwork. We know the arc of history bends towards justice and the coming reign of Christ.”

Artists on hand were recognized for their contributions with a certificate and a gift card to Block Art Materials, a family-owned retail and catalog art supply business.

Auxiliary Bishop Gerard W. Battersby announced the works of art on display at St. Suzanne/Our Lady of Gate Heaven will make up a traveling exhibit available to parishes throughout the Archdiocese of Detroit to promote more Black representation in sacred art and to spark conversations about race and racial relations in the local Church.
Auxiliary Bishop Gerard W. Battersby announced the works of art on display at St. Suzanne/Our Lady of Gate Heaven will make up a traveling exhibit available to parishes throughout the Archdiocese of Detroit to promote more Black representation in sacred art and to spark conversations about race and racial relations in the local Church.

The artists, many of whom are not Catholic, got to learn about the Catholic Church, sainthood, and the various ways people can contribute their talents to the faith community.

“We went and researched a bunch of different Black Catholics, making a list with images and picking a Black Catholic we wanted to base on work based on the vibe and who we resonated with their story because of articles we read about who they were,” said

Habacuc Samuel Bessiake, who graduated from the College of Creative Studies this year with a major in Illustration, said he was inspired by Sr. Bowman's holy life.

“Thea Bowman was one of the people I felt was really inspiring," Bessiake said. "Her smile, you can see how she really enjoyed what she was doing, singing and serving for such a long time in her life.

“I’ve learned there are a lot more Black Catholics than I previously thought,” Bessiake continued. “A lot of people, even modern people, I didn’t know were Catholic. One of the main powers of being an artist is uncovering things that are unseen. You are able to shine a light on things people didn’t know about. The more insight you get, the more you understand other people.”



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