October 8, 2019
“If you remember one of Tamara’s paintings,” says Gerald Liu, Princeton Theological Seminary professor of worship and preaching. “She has two gentlemen in a Michelangelo stance, their fingers are pointing and they are almost touching. That is a preliminary representation of what would be two sculptural figures – one in Princeton, one in Trenton that represent a diversity of humanity reaching out to one another.”
Tamara Torres was one of three artists represented in a multimedia exhibit at Princeton Seminary’s Erdman Hall that Liu organized in collaboration with Trenton, N.J.-based Artworks as part of a grant he received from the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) to research innovative ways to teach theology. Torres’ mixed media photography collage entitled “We See Trough Hate” is one of several of her works that features the figures, in classical and contemporary stances, reaching out.
“A diversity of humanity reaching out to one another. That’s her way of thinking about the togetherness of these two cities, the importance of trying to reconcile with one another in the midst of our differences; trying to celebrate those differences,” Liu added.
Liu is convinced that recognizing racial justice, racial reconciliation, and building unity can become clearer by tapping into the energy of Trenton’s “incredible art, theater, music, and community art programs” that exist in the midst of the city challenged by poverty and illiteracy and other social and economic problems.
“This all started in 2017 as a complement to the presidential series on race,” Liu says, referring to the Seminary’s historical audit on slavery. “I was trying to think of a way to build covenant community outside of a formal lecture setting or classroom activity. So, I tied it all together into a project to work with artists from Artworks Trenton to think about how we can build community together by designing and creating public art.”
Major universities, colleges, divinity schools and seminaries in the U.S. have been examining their historical connections to slavery and have sponsored research, lectures, artists-in- residence, and discussions to respond to the impact of these legacies.
Princeton Theological Seminary, as did other higher education institutions, spent years uncovering the historical information and researching the moral, legal, and economic complexities of the ties to slavery and what responsibility exists as a result of those connections. “We talk a lot about race and anti-racism and that is necessary,” Liu says. “But a lot of the ways in which we learn to love one another happens informally. If we are able to build these projects the building of them together will be casual spaces to engage with one another. To do something fun. To celebrate diversity, not just balance the ledger as it were.”
As part of an Association of Theological School Faculty Innovation Grant, Liu, over the past two years, has coordinated meetings between Seminary faculty and the Artworks artists, municipal government leaders and other arts organizations.
“There have been other schools who have done art projects in response to their historical relationship to slavery,” Liu says. Larger colleges and universities sponsored programs that involved well known African American artists, but Liu says he focuses on the local connection, the artists who come from diverse backgrounds; who live in the struggling nearby communities; and who hold down day jobs. He saw the grant project as a natural extension of what the Seminary already does.
Liu says the connection between theology and the arts is strong at the Seminary. “To me, public art is a natural bridge for public Christian witness and a natural extension of what practical theology concerns itself with and cares about.”
“My call as a pastor centers on shaping a community where people can connect and be real with each other and God.”