Soul Food for Hungry Hearts

Two dear friends who were visiting from out of town this past Sunday – one a photographer and writer; the other, connoiseur of all things artistic – suggested that a visit to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta would be a lovely way to spend the afternoon, and indeed it was. After a delicious lunch at Table 1280, we divided our time in the museum between the two exhibits that interested us the most – The Forty Part Motet, a sound sculpture by Janet Cardiff, and Segregation Story, a photography exhibit by Gordon Parks.

Nothing could have prepared me for the penetrating beauty of The Forty Part Motet, the mezmerizing reworking of a 40-part choral piece by Tudor composer Thomas Tallis in which voices of 59 singers (adults and children) perform Tallis’ Spem in Alium Nunquam Habui (1556) which translates to In No Other is My Hope. We took an elevator to the floor where this exhibit was and the minute the elevator doors opened we smiled at each other. “Feels like we’re in heaven now,” I said to our friends. We had arrived into the sacred space created for us by sound artist Janet Cardiff.  Each voice recorded separately, all the voices were singing in unison via 40 individual loudspeakers on tripods (one speaker for each choral part).  It was as if we had been transported into a cathedral. “Does it sound familiar?” whispered my friend as we sat down on a bench in the center.  “It was the music for Princess Diana’s funeral, ” she continued. I closed my eyes and relaxed into the singing, which continued for 11 minutes followed by a 3-minute period of silence before beginning again.  This time I wandered from tripod to tripod, voice to voice, and then returned to the center, keeping my eyes open so that I could watch the people walking around the exhibit, or standing, or sitting.

Segregation Story, by African-American photographer Gordon Parks, was on the same floor and I was grateful for this because even though it could be heard only from a distance, the sacred quality of Cardiff’s sound sculpture lent a healing element to the heavy emotional experience of witnessing  Parks’  depictions of the horrors of segregation. Created for a special 1950’s  Life Magazine article, these photographs were designed to offer a powerful look at the daily life and struggles of a multigenerational family living in segregated Alabama, a motherland of racism in our country, and Parks faced persecution and harrassment while doing this work.  I thought about my sister, who was born in the ’50’s, and of her untiring dedication to healing racism in many ways, but especially through her book, Talking About Race: A workbook for white people fostering racial equality in their lives (http://www.ltar.biz) And yes, I do plug her book whenever I can, because I believe that it’s particularly relevant to these times; it’s accessible, and important.

Through writing this blog I’ve realized how the museum actually became a sanctuary for me last Sunday – a sanctuary where I was reminded once again of the healing and nourishing power of music and art. Have you had a similar experience in a museum or elsewhere lately?

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