13.2 / The Throne of the Third Heaven of Nations Millennium, General Assembly / Taylor Renee Aldridge

Black One Shot stages brevity and precision in response to the art of blackness, contemporary and/or prescient. At 1000 words a pop, these pieces divest from academic respectability to inhabit the speculative, ambivalent, irreconcilable ways of black forms, and move through the fires this time. Seditiously, we are object forward, conjuring up the necessary intimacy generated between a critic and their object and keyed to the channels and frequencies of blackness. We hold fast to the given/taken works, the cultural productions without reduction, the condition of knowing all-too-well, and the imagining of something otherwise. Object love in the time of pandemics and insurrections. 

b.O.s. will run the course of summer 2020, come what may. We invite you to follow and share hard. Thanks to all the contributors and special thanks to Abram Foley, Aurelie Matheron, and Irenae Aigbedion of ASAP/J.

– Lisa Uddin and Michael Boyce Gillespie (Editors)

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James Hampton, The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly, ca. 1950-1964, mixed media, Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The Throne was my sanctuary. I first encountered the monumental work by James Hampton during my undergraduate time at Howard University in Washington D.C. On view at The Smithsonian American Art Museum, the work, whose full title is The Throne of the Third Heaven of Nations Millennium, General Assembly, (1950-1964), was a reprieve from my travels between Howard University and George Washington University as I fulfilled my art history requirements. Along the spine of the Nation’s capital—Georgia Avenue which transitions into 7th Avenue closer toward the Capitol, connects the two vastly different schools—I  experienced class and racial polarities in and outside of the classroom. At Howard, I engaged in intersubjective dialogue about culture and oppression. At George Washington University, often the only Black person in my classes, I would notice and boldly remark on the erasure of nonwhite artists from my courses. Oscillating between being both a majority and minority figure, The Throne became a site to escape this reality. It became a quiet place for meditation for an aspiring arts worker who could not yet see herself in the field. Similarly, Hampton’s invisibilized labor in making The Throne emblematizes the limits of art canonical discourse, and the sovereignty in opting out of the discourse altogether.

Considered an outsider artist, James Hampton created the grand sculpture in a rented carriage house during the mid-twentieth century.1 From found objects, such as silver and gold aluminum, glass jars, and the discarded light bulbs of federal buildings where he worked as a janitor, Hampton fabricated a one hundred and eighty piece, seven-foot tall dedication to Christ’s return.2 The Throne includes an amalgamation of ornate altar-like adornments – winged and haloed figures, a seated throne, crowned pieces – all of which come together to produce a symmetrical alter whereby the right side signifies the New Testament of the Bible and Jesus Christ and the left side represents the Old Testament and the prophet Moses. 

Archival image of James Hampton in front of The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly, 1950s

As a durational sculpture that Hampton worked on for over a decade, The Throne first came to public consciousness after he died. Equally striking to me is Hampton’s private laboring and faith practice that was seen by no one until well after his death. What does it mean to produce an offering with no audience outside of the one that is omnipresent and spiritual? The work was discovered by Hampton’s landlord after he passed. When notified about the works, his family called for the grand installation to be discarded. This begs us to consider how the act of unearthing a private construction like this one could be a disruption in correspondence (between Hampton and divine figures); a violation of its secrecy. 

James Hampton’s notebook, written in his invented script.

One of the most compelling elements that accompanied the sculpture is what Hampton called The Book of the 7 Dispensations. A commercially-printed ledger made of cardboard, ink and foil, it features Hampton’s own invented and as yet untranslated script, referred to as Hamptonese.3 The written equivalent of speaking in tongues, the ledger reflects the spiritual practice of being mounted, or possessed, by the spirit of Christ as is often carried out in the sanctified church. Above the indecipherable script in his ledger on each page reads “St. James” along with the page number. In the footer of each page, Hampton has written, “REVELATiON.” I wonder about all that transpired during those nights in his studio, sanctuary, site of refuge. Perhaps Hampton operated and officiated his own divine acts, possessed while also witnessing his own dispossession, both caller and responder to his own enlightenment. This spiritual writing signifies an endless possibility of the incoherent dialogue between Hampton and whomever (or whatever) else: “They come from something else in me and respond to…what other? This piecemeal ‘possession’ disturbs, breaks or suspends the autonomy of the speaker.”4

As a believer in the second coming of Christ, Hampton was also a believer of dispensationalism: a hermeneutic committed to the idea that Biblical scripture is without error. The scripture is understood through a historical framework of seven eras or dispensations. Ironically, Hampton was inspired by a literal reading of the scripture to create a series of revelations that have remained completely indecipherable. Conversely, areas of script displayed on the various pieces within the sculpture are still somewhat opaque; affirmations and testimonies of Hampton’s vision. Adorned on tablets within the work: “This is true that the great Moses the giver of the tenth commandment appeared in Washington, D.C. April 11, 1931.” And another: “…on October 2, 1946, the great Virgin Mary and the Star of Bethlehem appeared over the nation’s capital.” Even on his garage wall: “Where there is no vision, the people will parish.” The throne chair is marked with the words “FEAR NOT.”5 

The aluminum foil Hampton used to construct The Throne has many formidable properties that add to his vision. Highly malleable, it can be used to shield radiation and can act as a total barrier to light and oxygen. The use of foil (and glass jars, bottles, and light bulbs) also recalls Kongo-American, Black Southern, and Haitian spiritual traditions of honoring orisha and ancestors.6 Whether Hampton chose these materials with this history in mind or not, the gold and tin foil reflect an ingenuity that anticipated longevity and the potential discovery of the work, if not by other mortal beings, then by the Holy spirit himself.

While the conceptual and linguistic scaffolding of The Throne remains fleeting by contrast, the sculptural elements of the work evidence a skilled and informed vigilance to create an object that could endure. In retrospect, visiting this Throne and its discontents as a budding arts scholar was a sanctuary because it gave me permission to relieve myself from discourse and didacticism. There was a pleasure in bearing witness to language and material that will continue to evade total capture. 

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This is one of four essays from the thirteenth transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays here:

b.O.s. 13.1 / Braids tuh’da flo(w) / Amy Herzog
b.O.s. 13.3 / Vivid Seams / Genevieve Hyacinthe 
b.O.s. 13.4 / Numbers Station [Red Record] / Julie Beth Napolin

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Lisa Uddin is author of Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), and has recent writing in the volume Race and Modern Architecture: A Critical History from the Enlightenment to the Present (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020), ASAP/J, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Postmodern Culture. She’s here for the freedom.

Michael Boyce Gillespie is the author of Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (Duke University Press, 2016). His recent work has appeared in Black Light: A Retrospective of International Black Cinema, Flash Art, Unwatchable, and Film Quarterly. He hopes that people are still outraged in November.

Endnotes

  1. Outsider art is made by artists who have not prioritized their practice within the structure of formal arts training and the art market compliance. Roger Cardinal has described Outsider art as a “highly idiosyncratic and secretive and reflects the individual creator’s attempt to construct a coherent, albeit strange, private world.” Cardinal, Roger. “Outsider Art and the Autistic Creator.” Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences 364, no. 1522 (2009): 1459-466.
  2. Hampton worked as a janitor for the General Services Administration until he passed in 1964 from cancer at the age of 53.
  3. The spirit writings that Hampton invented, recently invoked through the work of contemporary artist Steffani Jemison,  recall the “Unknown Handwritings” of Elder W.G “Ting aLing” Johnson, who in 1914, while being anointed with the spirit, wrote in an unknown script entitled “Brother John’s Call to Michigan.” Brother Johnson, would go on to be the foundation to the Pentecostal denomination of Church of God in Christ, which is known to celebrate the more corporeal, sonic and incoherent forms of communicating and testifying salvation.
  4. I am reminded of an essay shared with me by my collaborator Billy Mark on the fiction and fable of incoherent linguistics, or glossolalia. Incoherence and clandestine conspiracy (even when conspiring alone or with spirits) is a form of liberation. Michel de Certeau, “The Opera of Speech: Glossolalia” in The Mystic Fable; Volume II: The Sixteenth And Seventeenth Centuries, ed. Luce Giard, trans. Michael B. Smith. (Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 213.
  5. Timothy Beal, The Book of Revelations: A Biography. (Princeton, New Jersey; Princeton University Press, 2018), 159.
  6. Thompson, Robert Farris. Flash of the Spirit. (New York, NY; Vintage Books, A Division of Random House 1984), 146.
Taylor Renee Aldridge
Taylor Renee Aldridge has recently been hired as the visual arts curator and program manager at the California African American Museum (CAAM). Prior, she worked as a writer and independent curator in Detroit, Michigan. She has organized exhibitions with the Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit Artist Market, Cranbrook Art Museum, and The Luminary (St. Louis). In 2015, along with art critic Jessica Lynne, she co-founded ARTS.BLACK, a journal of art criticism for Black perspectives.