Invoking the Spirt

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chester Higgins Jr., does with his camera what Aretha Franklin does with a song, what Max Roach does with drums, what Toni Morrison does with words, what Spike Lee does with film. This self-described "cultural anthropologist with a camera" grabs your attention because his material is vaguely familiar but also different, unexpected, riveting. Once he has your attention, Mr. Higgins provides entree into a place that is often off limits to those who do not belong, the private world of African Americans at play or in prayer, in triumph or in tragedy. Black, as refracted through Mr. Higgins's lens, is much more than a color. Documenting the enormous diversity among African Americans is rarely acknowledged in the mass media, is the raison d'être of much of his work.

It is perhaps in their expression of faith that African Americans are most diverse: they are Jewish and Christian and Muslim, as well as adherents of African religions perhaps more ancient. To the uninitiated—to those, that is, who have not been exposed to Mr. Higgins's work—all blacks are Baptists and praise God through gospel music. His photo essay "Invoking the Spirit: Worship traditions in the African World, on exhibition at the NYPL Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, (October 2, 1994-January 16, 1995).shows otherwise worshipers in New York Tap Ancestral Roots" . These photographs were taken over a five-year period. From more than 2,000 images on more than 600 rolls of film, something truly African within them. That is true of the Pentecostal Christians who were born into the faith as it is of the more recent converts to the African faiths of long—forgotten ancestors.

To understand the magnitude of the assignment Mr. Higgins gave himself, one must know that it is in religious worship that African Americans have traditionally had their greatest freedom from the oppressive world at large, and thus guard the sanctity of their worship from intruders. They are especially suspicious of anyone who shows up with a camera. Time and again Mr. Higgins persuaded the leader of a flock to give him a hearing, then persuaded that leader to support his project. But even that did not mean he could begin taking pictures: he still had to persuade the worshipers to let him photograph their services.

I'm spiritual, not religious," says Mr. Higgins, who was a Baptist preacher from the age of 9 until undergraduate days at Tuskegee University. "To me the Spirit creates humans. Humans then create religions. Religions then create walls. I don't want to be walled in; I don't want to be walled out from what is created by the spirit."

Perhaps that is what his subjects—whether in Brooklyn or in the Gullah country of South Carolina, in Puerto Rico or in Senegal—sense when he approaches them. "What we're connected by is a spiritual experience," he says.

That comes through in this photo essay on New Yorkers, where one can sense commonality among the different, as between the Orisha summoning the soul by blowing conch shells and the rabbi blowing the shofar on a Hebrew holy day; or the quiet strength of the Nubian priestess and the Apostolic parishioner.

Throughout his career, Mr. Higgins has been "feeling the spirit" of the peoples of the African Diaspora and inviting-indeed, challenging—those who view his photographs to do so too. Certainly he takes people who are not black into a world they never knew existed; but perhaps more important, he takes black people there too, reconnecting them to a past they never knew or never knew well. Pride, hope and dignity leap out from Mr. Higgins's photographs, not the pain, pathos and pessimism that often dominate other documentaries of the black experience.

This photo essay is part of a larger project that has occupied Mr. Higgins throughout his 30 year career: the creation of what he describes as a "photographic encyclopedia of the life and times of people of African descent." He has used vacation time and his own money to hopscotch the globe, spending 8—12 weeks a year on both sides of the Atlantic in search of the African heritage. In this journey he has photographed burial ceremonies in West Africa and the 18th-century African Burial Ground in Manhattan; the portals through which Africans were led on their way to board slave ships and the old market in which they were sold in Charleston, S.C. This year alone he plans to visit West Africa, Western Europe, South America and the Caribbean.

Fortunately for those who cannot make the actual journey with him, Mr. Higgins has given us the next best thing.

 

Feeling the Spirit
Comment Book from
MoPA
Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego, Ca

14 February - 14 April, 1998

 

1. Thank you for the uplifting experience enabling humankind. A gorgeous exhibit and a credit to our MoPA. Bea Laynab, La Jolla
2. Outstanding exhibit—Chicago, with all its cultural institutions does not have a photography museum.
3. Delightful, awe inspiring. I've followed your career from afar. This surpasses the exhibit and book "Songs of My People." I see myself and recognize many of these people from my own experience as an African American. Thank you for this profound record of humanity.
Carmen Carter, Cincinnati
4. It was wonderful. Black people are everywhere. We work hard, we love and take care of our families. We pray and play. I truly enjoyed the photographs. Thank you. Sharon McGhee, Escondido
5. Excellent exhibit. We need more of such ways to recognize African Americans and their historic struggle. Debra Franklin. Westerfield,Ct
6. Finally someone has the delicacy and intelligence to re-define America of today with (cultural void we know) with some correction of who we (all of us black & white) are and from what common ancestry we evolved. Congratulations. Scott L.R.Smith. 64 Monash Avenue, Nedlands 6009, Western Australia
7. A wonderful exhibit showing how the old and new can come together in a true spirit. Ann Thunley
8. This amazing embodiment of the human spirit has humbled my soul and inspired me to find a way to capture that spirit through my own eyes. Kaitie Drace.
9. I'm glad to come here. There are so many pictures telling us lives of many people. Through the pictures shown here, I'm sure everybody can open his/her own perspective. Thank you! Monchi
10. Quite a wonderful presentation. The T.V. presentation added to the sheer enjoyment of Higgins' exquisite photos. Cliff/June Kenny
11. Very sad and an 'eye opener'. Doug/Anne Gregg-Alaska
12. The exhibit's spirit is within all of us. Thank you for bringing it to us.
13. It's nice to see good art. Thanks so much!
14. Thank you. It really help educate me.
15. The exhibition was very well done. You really seemed to capture the spirit and essence of the people. Evelin J. Sarti
16. Excellent! Great art. Thanks.
17. Remarkable photo-documentary of African peoples in the Diaspora.
18. They were fabulous pictures! Kendall Schmidt
19. Wonderful pictures! Una Balu
20. Almost breathless. This gives me the courage to look into my own heritage, the people and land of Australia. I have never seen photography captured like this, with such spirit behind the pictures. Thank you. May your expressions grow and encompass all the people of this planet. Mitchell Roe
21. Exquisite. It filled me up. What an incredible photographic chronicle of the Diaspora.
22.Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I brought with me my two-year old son. He listened as I read the cards and then explained the pictures that he viewed. I believe that he understood. He was solemn and humble. Respectfully, Che Frirr
23. I love the way he captures interest in the onlooker.
24. I especially liked the 'school girl in Tamale.' She was so. Love, Meredith Pierce.
25. Really appreciate these beautiful photographic works. Thanks for the insight on African people..Calin Baher
26. So very beautiful. Nash Lawreson, Boston
27. The camera captures the dignity Chester Higgins obviously wanted. A little humor would have been added to the story being told in remarkable pictures.
28. Memorable! Paul/Susan Hays-Nagoya, Japan
29. After being myself in Senegal last year, I can only have this pain in my heart remembering each place I have been. Thanks for making me remember what I will never forget. Assalaam malekoun, nam g'a def.
30. The children are wonderful!!!
31. Personally, I think that you need more pictures, because your work is so good. Darya Dehghan
32. Your images are wonderful, both in subject matter and in technical excellence. Thank you for your vision. Mark Tanner-LA
33. I've just begun to explore the possibilities of photography and was really inspired by this exhibit and the deep histories and emotions it touches. I especially love the expressions you captured in peoples' faces. Many thanks.
34. Ok! Chester. Your work is soooo.....breathtaking. I appreciate you much and lending your insight to fill our (San Diego) starving minds and hearts. Can I travel with you on your next journey. Africa is sooo...in us! Much admiration. Asante sana, good work. Pamela Rider Smith-A San Diego urban warrior.
35. This was an extremely moving and educational exhibit. What happened to the simplistic lifestyle still practiced in other lands?
36. We have seen through your eyes. Documentary work brings societies closer to the truth. Your experiences have served to enlighten us. Thank you for your generosity.
37.A beautiful, spiritual exhibit—shows people with soul and dignity. Good work!
38. A wonderful experience.
39. Thank you for a wonderful look into history and the heart! Amy Andersen— Pt Loma. Nazerene College
40. I liked it, and so did my uncle. Misty
41. I enjoyed some of the photos but I'm tired of those 'fake identities'. As a (white) French guy, I feel many times closer to the African culture, the music and the way of living than many "African-American" people. What is the common point? The colour of skin...is it sufficient to build a common reality? The lack of roots...
42. Outstanding work, all of the pictures brought out the life of the people, their pain and joy. Excellent. Tony Torres
43. Black and white photo's brought to life wide lips and strong hands. This warmed and saddened my heart. Your writings accented each picture perfectly. From her sixth birthday to shackled ankles all made strong positive statements. I found it interesting to see creek fishing in similar memories a century ago. Thank you for making me feel.
44. Passion—Path—Inspiration. Kristine
45. I feel connected...beautiful, informative, spiritual, revealing. Bless you. Joyce Blair Hall
46. This was feeling, and heart touching way of sharing our history and also our future.
47. I felt very enlightened by the art exhibit. I am definitely going to bring my children to see this. Tammy Cook
48. Excellent exhibit. Truly worth seeing by all. Karlor Davis
49. I was impressed with the rich culture.
50. An exceptionally moving exhibition.
51. A truly beautiful exhibition and I learned a great deal too!
52. Absolutely beautiful! I saw so many faces of my family and friends in those photographs. Thank you for showing us how beautiful we are and how closely connected we really are. Thanks for sharing your knowledge. C. Fatima Muhammed
53. Great history, enjoyed the journey.
54. I've never been in touch with my African heritage. I don't know where my family comes from. Lately, I've become very interested in wanting to learn about all of that. Coming to this museum gave me a feeling that's hard to describe. It was very powerful and emotional. The pictures you make are wonderful. I wish I could purchase one or two for my home. Thank you for sharing your art. Tabitha Smith
55. I very much enjoyed your exhibit, the format, the concept. You managed to link the motherland to the homeland. I'm certain you could have and would have been more extensive... I also enjoyed reading the comments here, you have touched and inspired many feelings, crossing spiritual as well as cultural lines, for that I commend your work. For me you help confirm my faith and belief, "One world, one lord, one faith, one spirit...I look forward to more from you. Stay strong, stay inspired. Charles DeBerry
56. These pictures are interesting. I learned that they live in caves. It is interesting how they made the old buildings. The lady with the white cloth was scary. Thank you. Florence, 8 years-old
57. You took me home with your tribute to New York. Your expression for art is exhilarating and heartfelt. Keep up your passion for capturing the souls of everyday lives of people throughout the Diaspora.
58. Didn't know what to expect when I dropped in on your exhibit. Now I expect it will be with me for a long time as I sift through the images you have made. Thank you. Kathy Franks. Calgary
59. Absolutely excellent celebration of our oneness—As Baha's (members of the Baha'i faith) my husband and I join millions of others around the globe in working to build the unity of humankind. We are all one race—the human race! Thank you for having this show.
60. Thank you for your displays of Africans from all over the world. Your pictures are very emotional and inspiring. The Middle Passage—stirred something deep inside of me—Display was excellent.
61. We have been taught, throughout our lives, even now, that unless you are pure white you are not right. People like me of mixed descent, who can hide, by fairness of features their true ancestry do so to avoid any shame. I feel proud to have both in me and I was both spiritually and physically moved. I am proud to be who I am and more proud than ever of my roots. Thank you.
62. Sometimes what is truly felt has no words. Your pictures have enough words to express a century of pride, character, and tradition. I have nothing more to say except that it was beautiful.
63. Every piece of art was so marvelously beautiful and so indescribable. Words could never express half of things that were said out by these pictures. The history, heritage, pride, sorrow, happiness, and so much more were felt all through the pictures from within. I enjoyed it. Dina
64. I attended the opening of this exhibit at the Schomburg in New York City. Seeing it again in San Diego has given it a deeper meaning to me. Best wishes. Mari da Silva
65.I loved this exhibit.
66. I was incredibly inspired by your exhibit. My favorite pictures were of the churches and all of New York, Alabama and family shots.
67. The photography was outstanding. I wish there had been more pictures on Islam. Since Islam has such a huge impact on Muslims in Africa.
68. Bless you for giving purpose to 'Unity'.
69. Very powerful.
70. Not often are there historical teachings as brilliant as this. I'm honored to have this experience. May your 'mission' in life be realized; for the believer it has.
71. You done good!! God bless you.
72. Thanks. Very beautiful indeed, you have brought to life something most people never get to see from abroad. Keep up the good work. Salaam
73. Exceptional photography! Enjoyed witnessing the religious theme and most of all relished the idea of an artist pulling together art through photos the African Diaspora. I welcome this photo exhibit...May Mr. Higgins be blessed to take more of these types of photos for public exposure and viewing. The stories told through them are beneficial for the entire world. Thank you.
74. Again great show. I brought my father for some "culture"—and he liked it as well. Thanks
75. I learned so much of history and an awesome capture of loving people.
76. Higgins intellectual grasp of the human condition is excelled only by his photographic insights. Dick Falk
77. I was happy to see your part on slavery, not to mention your great talent! Great photos!
78. Second time seeing it...made me want to go to Ghana.
79. Superb monochromatic prints confirming the dramatic value of photography in documentary work.
80. Beautifully put together.
81. Dear MoPa. Many thanks for sharing with us these stunning images and insightful thoughts of Chester Higgins Jr.
82. Absolutely superb!! Thank you for bringing it to San Diego.
83. Incredible! I am so impressed with all of it. Thanks.
84. I drenched myself in the Living Waters, bowed to the Rites, felt the Middle Passage and nurtured in the Spirituality. Thank you for Feeling the Spirit, our community is revitalized. Yeyere Afe of Oshun
85. Having lived in Tanzania and Trinidad we felt you captured the spirit we felt living among these beautiful people. Bill/Patti Harmon
86. Beautiful prints, extraordinary composition and insightful content. Thank you.
87. Culturally inspiring. After my day filled with disappointment seeing your photos gave me some inspiration and motivation.
88. Awesomely beautiful! My spirit was enlightened.
89. Because of this exhibit my wife and I joined the museum! We are pleased that this exhibit was chosen to be presented to us.
90. To me, this exhibit shows that all share in a common humanity.
91. I found the African world.
92. An inspiring photographic display of the African culture. Magnificent!! Catherine Cosby
93. My heart became warm. Yuki
94. Wonderful photographs from a huge talent.
95. As an African, I truly appreciate your work. Be encouraged.
96. A deeper appreciation of the deep and ancient ties of all African ancestors and how they have come to inhabit all cultures. Thank you.
97. Higgins brings us all together as one human race, while, at the same time, recognizing the decency and the power of the African as a separate starting place for everyone. Thank you.
98. Fantastic, riveting pictures: miraculous. But could do without racists theme.
99. Absolutely riveting photographs! I didn't want to leave.
100. Your exhibit is beautiful. I was too late so I couldn't get in to hear your lecture but the pictures spoke loud and clear. Love, Faith Ringgold
101. A wonderful, sensitive portrayal of your heritage. The photography is beautiful.
102. A revelation for me and a joy to see so many beautiful photos.
103. The closer I become to myself the nearer I get to traveling to Africa. Six to nine months ought to do it. Next year perhaps. Thank you Mr. Artist.
104. You have a gift.
105. Wonderful photography! Being a photographer myself, and having studied the Yoruba in Anthropology classes really makes this exhibit come alive. Elinor S. Cohen
106. Thank you so much for telling and sharing our history so up close and personal—my body tingles.
107. Thank you for sharing with me the pride I feel in being a part of humankind. Karen Johnson
108. Chester, you've open our eyes with kindness and clarity.
109. Most informative and amazing photography.
110. Wish there had been a description of the camera, photography details, ets.
111. Powerful photography. These images are a learning experience about people, places and things most of us know nothing about.
112. It makes me ponder my own roots, some Moorish in me which connects me more to your art! Technically beautifully and personally luminous, your images should be seen by all. Congratulations for a great exhibit.
113. Beautiful images especially of faces—or where the focus was on a person.
114. It's too real. Enjoyed it.
115. Your image of strong, powerful healing hands of women brought tears to my eyes.
116. Having the photos in black and white made the images all the more powerful. Alexandra Pierce
117. Thank you for showing the dignity, decency and character of the people of African who inhabit the entire world. Blessings with peace, love and prosperity.
118. A fantastic celebration of the fundamental beauty from which all features across the world are derived. Makes light of the atrocity of European domination and greed to the extent of wiping out the true past from which we all came!
119. Fantastic exhibit—beautiful and powerfully simple.
120. Enjoyed the photographs. Great vision.
121. This was a marvelous exhibit of connectedness and persistence. Thank you. Cynthia Scarlett
121. Bring it all together.
122. Brilliant photography. But beyond that a statement that was moving. Thank you for sharing.
123. Beautiful, inspirational photography! You learn so much from just walking through. We loved it!
124. Emotionally gripping.
125. Beautiful, but sad. I really enjoyed this. Marissa. 8 years old.
126. Excellent show! I really enjoyed your work!
127. The spirit is in this place!
128. I understand a bit more. Thank you.
129. Thank you for sharing your work. It was great. I guess from now I'll appreciate the history more...
130. Am inspired to take photos by your great work.
131. Your photos are very powerful and they invoke in me very strong emotions. David Johnson
132. Thank you for your moving photographs on this Valentine's Day. My husband and I truly appreciated this exhibit especially during this Black History month. I have been educated more today on the African Diaspora.
133. The austerity and simplicity and class makes one proud to be African.
134. Excellent presentation in its layout, and the photos are captivating. They hold so much history of our people.
135. A great exhibit of history and portraiture. Fine environmental portraits.
136. Beautiful! Truly captured the spirit. Stephanie Green
137. This is truly moving.
138. When I was a small child I went to see a photography exhibit at a museum similar to this. It inspired me to become a photographer and to this day I have loved taking pictures but today I dropped that because of this.
139. The first photograph of the midwife standing by her gate was a superb transition from the sidewalk to you gallery of photography. She represents birth, in life and in the mood of your work. Lydia
140. A good example of diversity.
141. Very powerful, moving and personal experience. Great work.
142. Thank you for a moment of peace and knowledge with someone special.
143. Marvelous work. Even though, in today's terminology, I'm not of African descent I appreciate the spiritual bridge that you have provided so that my footsteps across it provides me with a peek into this brotherhood we call humanity. Reyes Rodriguez
144. It was very very nice, I love seeing people of my hometown of Alabama. Thanks.
145. In the annals of time have you indeed made a mark—at least on the minds of the individual. We are pieces of a puzzle of which you have been part of the master hand placing us together. I hope that the world can and will be moved as I was by your work. Continue yourself to "Feel the Spirit" as God gives you grace to do as much.
146. Thank you so much for your insight, wisdom, and open minded approach to living, dying experiences and seeing. I am thoroughly moved by your vision made manifest on film and your endeavors to bring humanity ever closer to peace, understanding, compassion and love for one another.
147. Excellent collection of images. Particularly admired the use of light and shadow in presenting people amid their daily activities.
148. I feel so good seeing this exhibit. So old and yet so new!
149. It was an experience to make me feel the importance of my own country's spirit.
150. A beautiful feeling exhibition showing also much sadness in the eyes and capturing a magnificent people.
151. As African Americans we constantly need reminders of our connection to the motherland. Living in San Diego where there has been a large influx of immigrants from Africa (primarily Ethiopia, Somalia and Central Africa) it hurts me to hear about or see the ill treatment they receive from blacks in this city. I hope these blacks who see this exhibit will understand that when they spread ill will toward these people they are in fact doing harm to themselves. I hope that African Americans who see this exhibit see a little of themselves. Felicia Eaves
152. VOICES. Voices from afar, A door ajar, Voices oh so smooth, Faces of the Truth Walter A. Salameh 619/260.1014
153. Wonderful photos. They touched my heart and spirit. Thank you for your work.
154. Fabulous.
155. Your work touches the core. The images you presented envoke feelings of emotion, strength and courage and longevity. Your eye for detail is phenomenal. Please continue to present the extensive cultural of minorities in a "real" way.
156. The King Curtis photo has him playing the soprano sax, not tenor. Fantastically moving collection of images. Thank you.
157. I enjoyed your powerful photos. Also liked your distinction between being religious and/or spiritual.
158. Enjoyed Muslim woman, moving and informative. Unknown to me before that 90% of African slaves were taken to South American countries and Caribbean. Clear photographs conveying mood and insight!
159. Take you time and feel it...
160. Powerful connection of human spirit for all races. Thank you.
161. This was moving! A genius. Coleen Moore
162. Thank you. I'm still looking for a copy of your earlier book showing fathers and sons. It was wonderful inspiration for me.
163. This exhibit is very powerful and uplifting. It truly shows the many facets of Kemetic (African) culture. Peace and blessings to Brother Higgins.
164. I found myself lost in the spirits of the people photographed. And I saw myself. Asante Sana
165. Mr. Higgins reflects his roots and strong feelings for his subjects.
166. I love the exhibit. I was full of energy and strong vibes.
167. Moving, beautiful—rewarding to see this photographic history!
168. Thank you for bringing out the moments of a culture that inspire us to think about our own lives and histories.
169. Breathtaking, memorable, touching...I felt so proud. It make me want to cry.
170. This is my heritage. I now feel a kinship to the motherland "Africa".
171. Your photographs were inspiring, informative, and gave us a feeling of importance, proud and good...we felt the spirit. Thank you.
172. I found your photographs fulfilling. You captured the essence of the people so beautifully. I also found knowledge in areas that I knew nothing of. Thank you.
173. This really takes me back to my roots. I love it.
174. I really enjoyed your work. Your photo's gave me a feeling of "being there".
175. It was a great collection of African memories, saga and their cherished works. I was impressed! Thanks
176. Good stuff! How about a little longer next time! Change admission to two dollars.
177. I found out a wonderful photo which is Native American. Her eyes could see anything. That's my feeling.
178. Excellent Exhibit. I enjoyed making both the spiritual and human journey from Africa to US and Caribbean. Thank you.
179. Your work is beautiful. I live in a dark room and it is my passion to photograph people. You've inspired me to venture out of my small space and see more of this world.
180. I came. I saw. I like. I left.
181. Really great, makes you think and aware of the passing time.
182. The work here is excellent by Chester Higgins, it really moves you in so many ways.
183. I've found that this is very enlightening. I also feel that its is all good!
184. Truly enlightening, inspiring and gorgeous—you captured the spirit and love it's obvious you experienced.
185. Pictures well chosen of the many faces of the African Spirit. Thank you for the reflections.
186. Has shown me what God had given me! Thank you for the opening my eyes again.
187. Beautiful artworks! You have truly captured some amazing moments. Thank you Inga/Steve
188. Why do I feel in these rooms there is a lack of honesty? But then, the only truth here, really...is yours. Why do you want us, really want us, to see these images—and didn't the vision really exist before any of this happened. Best of luck to you.
189. You have a deep and profound understanding of Africans and African Americans as well as insight on the beauty and mistress of the world that is lost in "dominant" western culture. Your pictures are worth thousands of words, meanings, insights and thoughts. You have truly captured your understanding, through the medium of photography, express it so well. As a Filipino American, you have definitely epitomized a "branching out" and understanding, a connection or bridge of our two different but intersecting worlds. You are truly gifted.
190. This exhibition has served as an impetus in fulfilling a personal goal of mine. I love photography and am currently exploring my own culture as a Filipino-American. You have shown one that using photographs as a medium in expressing the mysteries, wonders, beauty and horrors of ethnic Americans is truly a powerful form of self understanding and cultural appreciation. One day I would like to complete a photographic project in the Philippines and the Filipino communities here in America. I will surely attribute my source of inspiration to you, Mr. Higgins.
191. This is a wonderful exhibit, but that mumbo-jumbo about the Book of the Dead back there is not quite right! Beautiful work though.
191. All of the photos are very impressive for me.
192. Very insightful as we ponder the effects on Christianity on blacks throughout history and relationships with the Americans not popularly known. Rodney McGhee, Minneapolis
193. Wish I was there...A chance to open my eyes...The tears would not stop flowing. Something to learn for everyone.
194. This have been the most touching exhibition in my life. Because you had a story to tell and a reason to show. I want to be a photographer myself, you have been a great inspiration for me! I hope that you will make your searching once to Denmark, where I live and show through your great and spiritually pictures and story!
195. I love your exhibition and your style.
196. This was a wonderful display of human spirit. You captured emotion, depth, history, love and tragedy. Thank you.
197. As an African American male, I was reminded of where I came from. As an aspiring photographer, I was inspired. Thank you and please put out a book.
198. Carriacou, Grenada. One of the best photos I've ever seen. You have a way of capturing true life with your lens.
199. Your photographs moved me deeply . Your take is incredible!! It's obvious you're doing what you love. Danielle Bevins. Atl
200. The ability to photograph beautiful people of African descent is wonderful.
201. Amazing, to have all that history and understand it.
202. Loved every image and every word.
203. Your exhibition is wonderful. The choice of black and white brings the timelessness. Very moving and uplifting. Grapevine testimony to the human condition and spirit.
204. I like the different pictures that told you what they were doing.
205. For those of us not naturally attuned to the spirit, or to the African heritage, you opened our eyes and moved our spirits.
206. Beautiful photography—a very romantic view!
207. These are beautiful prints. I loved his composition.
208. Conveys the spirit tremendously!
209. Very powerful. I could spend hours in here. Beautiful! Thanks.
210. Your exquisite portraits of human life is breathtaking. Thank you.
211. The way each moment is captured is amazing. I was blown away by this exhibit. Thank you.
212. We enjoyed the display and the explaining of the sections throughout. I think you for keeping the children involved with reading the dialogue of each one.
213. A touching and magnificent exhibition. I learned and I realized the poetry of these exquisite spirits.
214. The president's trip has illuminated our need to know more about Africa and to share in the Spiritual gifts given in the Diaspora. The show is a wonderful work of art!!
215. Moving and inspirational. Touched my soul. Diane
216. Stunning and inspirational photography—I came across the book version of 'Feeling the Spirit' a few weeks ago, and I loved it. To be able to see the original artwork in person is a privilege!
217. A very heartfelt thank you to Chester Higgins Jr., for showing his love for all people through his body of art. We are all connected.
218. Wonderful works, for the Africans who have crossed the world and for the rest of us who have benefited from their lives.
219. What an elegant, reverential, beautiful show!
220. Having just returned from East Africa, I was particularly interested in seeing the mosques, etc., and the people of that area. Great show.
221. Fantastic pictures—the black and whites reflect endless color.
222. What a superb exhibit. Higgins works is masterful, relevant, touching, and transcends race to touch all humanity. Thanks.
223. Very touching! It sure touched me in the heart how it started in the beginning and continuing today!
224. Moving. Wonderful expression of feelings through facial expression.
225. Am extremely moving collection in the study of humanity and the human condition. The dignity of the people, depicted are shining examples of us all.
226. What interesting photography—the placards were very informative. I enjoyed the cultural visit in lands never visited.
227. Great! Make me want to take black and white photos!
228. These photos were the type that you can look at forever and never get tired of. Capturing people's personalities and the world around them is so challenging, and to keep each one alive with such form and light is very inspiring. Wonderful eye.
229. Outstanding exhibition. The collective African memory is something to be quite proud of. Marcy Gilman
230. Beautifully photographed with informative and insightful comments.
231. A fantastic affirmation of the African spirit.
232. We hope you will be able to add Cuba to this collection—it seemed conspicuously missing. (It is a treasure not to be missed) Other than that, thank you for capturing the spirit!
233. All the photos from the book should be displayed!! Get the video fixed!!
234. I enjoyed your interview on KPBS and the pictures.
235. Touching beyond words. I am moved, truly. Mickael Kyle
236. Being of African descent, I took great pleasure and ownership in your beautiful works of art. Thanks for the joyous memories.
237. Wonderful, inspired but well-thought out work. Thanks for bringing it to San Diego.
238. A whole new view of the extent of the travels and influence of Africans on the world.
239. Having lived in Benin, West Africa and traveled a bit on that continent, your photographs brought back the joys, sadness, and frustrations. Your exhibit put the "common sense" of African humans around the world and their similarities on the walls. Bless you.
240. Amazing photos, most left me speechless. Thank you.
241. Thank you for sharing our ancestral history. It's a joy to see and hope to visit someday.
242. Feeling the Spirit. Boy, did I! I can't believe how real, full, moving, and touching this exhibit is. I don't know what else to say.
243. Beautiful photographs, and the arrangement of an explanation of the works was exceptional. Rosann McCullough. Denver
244. A very unique selection of subjects. Bill Gagnon
245. I particularly loved the perspective of the child face taken through the elbow of the girl.
246. I've seen this exhibit before. I believe in NYC at the Museum of Photography there. What a pleasure to see it again and be inspired by the many messages for me, held within the photos. Thank you.
247. Thanks! It is really what we are and beyond. Silvain Valuntum
248. I was very moved by the intensity, simplicity and creativity of this exhibit.
249. Rich, compelling—as an African man in Diaspora I felt the spirits of kin. Thanks to Brother Higgins for capturing the breath of our ancestors and relatives.
250. Outstanding work. Most historical/educational research ever done. It was enriching and motivational to see an exhibition of this caliber. Keep the spirit.
251. Great emotional connection when black/white film used. Very effective presentation. Jane Montgomery. Oyster Bay, NY
252. Just beautiful—thoroughly enjoyed.
253. Amazing. I enjoyed all of it. I am a photo student and the printing and images blew my mind. The study itself was very interesting and informative. Congratulations.
254. Thank you for teaching me in a moving and insightful way.
255. Nothing has ever made me feel more connected to my ancestors! I am them and they are me. Thank you. Olga Venegas
256. Chester, you have captured a (the) spirit of a beautiful people. Thank you for sharing these experiences with us/me. I feel the energetic flow of love and pride, custom and ritual in your presentation.
257. Thank you Chester for the wonderful depiction of our oneness through the photographs; to me they show that we are ONE for the earth is but one country and mankind its citizens.
258. Beautiful! I have learned a lot! If only your book was affordable! Keep up the good work.
259. An incredible body of work! A beautiful experience! Thank you for sharing this with others.
260. Truly expresses our feeling and thoughts that this beautiful exhibit displays. I do hope this fabulous exhibit of pictures will be on display again in our city so many more people will have the opportunity to see it. This hall was beautiful but not easily found. It should be in a very prominent place.

 

ARTS The City Sun

December 6, 1995

Africa Reborn in Photo Exhibit

 

By Peter Essick

 

With the publication of Feeling the Spirit: Searching the World for the People of Africa, Chester Higgins Jr. finds new meaning in the photojournalist's motto 'bearing witness.' This documentary work of the people of the African diaspora, which has evolved over a period of 26 years, seeks to visually reconnect the spirit of a people separated by a terrible history. The simpleóbut ultimately complexómessage being that slavery, oppression and the march of time have created diverse communities on both sides of the Atlantic, but the common spirit has survived. Or as Higgins, an African American, states "We are Africans not because we are born in Africa, but because Africa is born in us." The connection is made through the sophisticated pairing and sequencing of seemingly diverse photographs. Higgins chose a thematic presentation of his story, intermixing pictures taken in different regions and times. This gives the simple straightforward photographic compositions new layers of meaning because of the context. It all adds up to an interpretative approach, free flowing like the African spirituality being celebrated. Into this global project, Higgins has infused a personal vision. He began the project by photographing the people in his hometown of New Brockton, AL and his experience of growing up black in the South serves as his point of departure. It is from these roots that he looks back to ancient Egypt as the land of his ancestors. He sees in the once great civilization a metaphor for African possibility. In modern Africa, he searches for the spirit of a people untouched by American racism. His New York photographs show the extension of his personal growth and artistic vision. Throughout the book, this distillation of time and travel is repeated again and again. Higgins' photographs are tranquil and always respectful. They are not overtly political, but in the current media climate, their dignified portrayals of African people send a strong message. His revisionist look at African history is driven by enlightenment. It would be easy to criticize Higgins' work as being one-sided in its positive approach, but to do so would be to miss the message. The work is honest in that it fulfills Higgins' goal, to visually reclaim a lost identity. The first two chapters of Feeling the Spirit, entitled "Most Ancient Place" and "Middle Passage" are a reverential look at African history. They show evidence of past kingdoms and haunting scenes of the former House of Slaves. Chapters 3 and 4, "Living Water" and "Sanctuaries" explore the needs and experiences of African people and how they also have much in common with the human family. The scenes in Alabama, Mexico, Mali and Ghana on one spread look more similar than different; a slightly different pattern woven with the same thread. Chapter 5, "Spirituality," is an in-depth look at a variety of African religious practices and expressions. Higgins has tirelessly documented many unique ceremonies, some of which are not too well-known in this country. The workings of the soul take center stage in Chapter 6, "In Our Manner." This chapter deserves special notice, and should be studied by any student of the photo essay. It is a masterful edit of subtle and revealing pictures. The pairing of photographs often creates a third effect, rich and open to a multitude of meanings. In this chapter, Higgins accomplishes much of what he set out to do: to visually grasp the spirit of his people. Chapter 7, "Rites," returns to a more straightforward presentation. The final chapter, "In Each Moment," seeks to find meaning in the simple, everyday affairs of life. That meaning becomes suffused in the puzzling layout, which groups pictures seemingly at random. The final picture of two girls in Alabama with very different facial expressions is even more ambiguous. Answers are hard to come by, but Feeling the Spirit ends as if unfinished. The viewer is left feeling mystified or somewhat confused. John Edgar Wideman once said that to attempt to describe the Black experience was like "taking a snapshot from a moving vehicle of a scene that is also moving." For the last three decades, Higgins has taken aim at this changing landscape and produced an important body of work. His photographs bear witness to the contributions of an often overlooked and stereotyped people, but their greatest power may be in providing evidence of the ancient and abiding spirit; a cornerstone on which to build the new African house. "Feeling the Spirit: Searching the World for the People of Africa" is published by Bantam Books. An exhibition from the book is at the Uptown gallery of the International Center of Photography through January 8, 1996.

 

Dayton Daily News
Dayton, Ohio

September 20, 1997by Charlise Lyles


Wilberforce display
Invoking the Spirit

Photographic display at Wilberforce focuses on black cultures' efforts to reach out to their God
"It is to the Spirit we bring hearts and souls laden with uncertainty. It is from the Spirit we seek the confidence to live. It is to the Spirit we bring our pain and sorrow—hoping to lighten our emotional load."—Chester Higgins Jr.

It does not matter whether the Spirit answers when we call. It matters only that we call. Again, again and again.


That ecumenical message seems to shine forth from "Invoking the Spirit," a photographic exhibit that explores African peoples and their worship.


It is on display through Nov. 24 at the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce.
These 90 or so images captured by Chester Higgins Jr., in his lifelong study of spirituality reflect human beings in every posture of holy surrender.


All are compelled to bow down, kneel, dance or reach up and out in holy exhilaration or supplication. This is the universal strength of the exhibit. From the mundane to the exotic, these photos bring into deep focus the human desire, indeed the human need, to worship a Law, a Force, a Spirit, a Creator, a God greater than ourselves.


Higgins allows us to witness intimate acts of faith: Folding his thin body into prayer till his forehead touches the soil, an Islamic man in a barren field gives praise to Allah. Nearby are his work tool and shoes, hastily cast aside, a testimony to his readiness to fall on his knees to worship.


A priestess from the Shrine of Ptah in Manhattan poses with righteous dignity as she clutches an Egyptian ankh symbol.


In the ambient light of a Cathedral in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, a young girl's eyes are aglow with the wonder of faith.


Black Hebrews in New York City reverently pass the Torah.


A Christian Orthodox minister stands outside the steps of Tawahedo Church of Emanuel, a majestic stone sanctuary hewn out of a mountainside's solid rock in the 12th-century Ethiopia.

And an aging woman kneels at her bedside to pray on an Alabama evening in 1968. We see her through a window pane, as if peeping in on her secret vespers.

Higgins began his own spiritual quest as a boy growing up in New Brockton, Ala., in the 1950s.

"I was a Southern Baptist minister from the age of 9 until I went to college," recalled Higgins, whose fever for spirituality seemed to burn through the telephone lines in an interview.
"In college I took a world religion class...That led me on a quest for the realization that the Creator is much too big to put inside any one religion and that we African people have a special relationship with the Spirit," said Higgins, now a New York Times photographer.

Over 25 years, his journey has taken him on self-financed excursions to Mali, Ghana, Ethiopia, Haiti, Cuba, Brazil and Brooklyn, his own back yard. His reward: insight into the spiritual legacy of his people.
"By predisposition, African Americans understand the innate need to have a relationship with the natural Spirit," Higgins said.

"We have learned to call those spirits by the name of the Protestant faith, but in other parts of the (African) diaspora, especially where Catholicism rules, we have been able to hold on to our ancient religious beliefs and practices."

"That's deep," whispered Marvin Morrison on a recent afternoon while viewing the exhibit with his friend Adam Heyward. The Wilberforce University alumni stood in awe of the photos, large and small, that fill up two generous museum halls.

"These capture the emotions of Africa, the spirit that we have in our worship," said Heyward, class of 1974. "Even though there are many different religions depicted here, there's deep emotion on all the faces."

Indeed, the well-written narration and photo captions are a minicourse in religion, reflecting the African involvement and influence in all major world faiths.

They include Muslim, Orthodox Christianity, Pentecostal, Southern Baptist, Catholicism, Judaism, as well as lesser known and understood Voudoum and Wat Maat, which is based on ancient Egyptian texts.

The beautifully rendered display is divided into five categories or aspects of worship: places, leaders, prayers, rituals and music.

All crescendo into a wash of spiritual illumination. The viewer is baptized, opened to an understanding (and, perhaps acceptance) of other God concepts.

Walking among these arresting images of white light, darkness and gray, one can feel the cleansing of libations, hear the whispering of prayers or the beating of ceremonial drums, touch bare feet stepping out a holy dance, or smell candles and incense burning.

All calling on the spirit.

 

Arts & Living
Cleveland Plain Dealer

November 27, 1995

Capturing his people's spirit
Photographer brings images of vital African-American culture into mainstream
By Diane Winston
Religious News Service

New York—Dressed in white, a gold embroidered prayer cap perched jauntily on his head, Chester Higgins Jr., bounds into the gallery. He greets the guards, smiles encouraningly at the visitors and settles into a window seat where he can monitor reactions to the large black-and-white photographs that cover the walls.

There are images of Coptic monks, voodoo initiates

 

Sunday, March 26, 1995
The Columbus Dispatch
Book Review

by Doral Chenoweth III


Two Portraits of Africa take different tracks 'Feeling the Spirit' gets at heart of people dispersed, connected
Two photography books about Africa are as different as the continent is immense.


Herb Ritts' Africa collects portraits of east African tribesmen, still lifes and pictures of animals. Chester Higgins Jr.'s Feeling the Spirit:Searching the World for the People of Africa amasses 220 photographs.
Ritts, a California-based celebrity and fashion photographer, has published four other collections of his work. Higgins, a New York Times photographer since 1975, has traveled extensively in northern and western Africa.


Both books early on include moving descriptions of the House of Slaves in Senegal from which millions of Africans were crowded onto ships destined for American markets.

Higgins writes of the agony, the horror and the unspeakable crimes committed against his ancestors; he backs up his words with photos of "the Door of No Return." Ritts does not have any pictures from Senegal.

Ritts' artistic images can be appreciated for their texture and beautiful printing; he has a strong eye for form. His comparison of a tortoise shell and a crouching woman becomes a study in still life. He is at his strongest in his interpretation of African wildlife:

His images of lions reflected in water are original and provocative. His treatment of the Masai people, however, is an exploitative mockery.

An ancient tribe of nomadic cattle-herders, the Masai live as they have for thousands of years in an area along the Tanzania-Kenya border-an area full of game reserves and, especially in recent years, an increasing number of tourists.
Most of the images call attention only to themselves through extreme close-ups, nudity and forced postures.

The book may be titled simply Africa, but the Masai-making up less than 1 percent of the continent's population of 701 million-are the only people pictured. The misrepresentation perpetuates the stereotype that all Africans carry spears, wear body jewelry and walk around naked.

The real Africa is much deeper.

Though beautiful, Ritts' images do not step much past the confines of the leather seats of a Land Rover, beyond what the typical tourist sees on a 10-day guided safari.
Higgins, on the other hand, shows nothing but real-life images culled from a lifetime of photographing Africans. The purpose and vision fro his book developed from a deep commitment to capture the real Africa, not a malign stereotype.
The artist describes how he was moved to tears in Ethiopia, the birthplace of humans: Years after his first visit, he took his 20-year-old son there-ostensibly just to show him the sights. One night, though, he had a dream about an ancient rite of passage using sand gathered from an ancient temple.

He spent days preparing himself and his son for the ceremony, which culminated in a quiet moment that bonded them and their ancestral heritage.
Feeling the Spirit bypasses tourist locales to go inside a rock-walled crevice in Mali that serves as the village's "men's club." It shows the grittiness and smog of Ghana's capital, Accra, through worshipers at a beach-front service.
Higgins' vision spans the diaspora of Africans: Photography has been my tool to discover, confront, examine and depict-through dispersion and connection-the existence of people of African descent," he states in the introduction.

In a chapter titled "Sanctuaries," he writes about Goense-a remote jungle village in South America's Suriname that was a refuge for runaway slaves. Photos of other refuges show the intimacy of the African community: inside a rural home in Veracruz, Mexico; a coffee shop in New York's Harlem; a laundry in Alabama; and a couple's apartment in Ghana. The images are beautiful in their simplicity and grace.

One image in Ritts' book comes close to portraying the real lifestyle of Africans: A Masai woman in traditional dress, shot in the harsh midday sun, blankly stares into the camera. Otherwise, Africa is as representative of the continent as Disneyland is of America. The glitz and plastic faces, in themselves delightful, do not give any indication of the individuals within the costumes.

Feeling the Spirit has found the true beauty of Africa-and explores that beauty by illuminating the soul of its people.
Doral Chenoweth III is a Dispatch photographer. He is planning a third trip to Africa, this time to the remote Tanzanian village of Liuli.

 

Columbus Dispatch
15 September 1998
ARTS


From Africa outward
Photographer passionately documents scattering of a people

By Doral Chenoweth III
Dispatch Staff Photographer

Fear was starting to swallow Chester Higgins Jr. The scorpions, vipers, cobras and bugs on the desert floor had him worrying about becoming their main course. On self-assignment in drought-ridden Niger, the photojournalist was spending his first night in a remote aid station when the sand around his cot came alive.


He grappled that night with his faith. "If what I'm doing is right and the spirit wants me to do it," he remembers thinking, "then the spirit will let me live." He considered the advice his aunts and uncles had given him back home in Alabama: "When it's your time, it's your time." Between such thoughts, he went to sleep.


"When I awoke," Higgins said in a recent interview, "there were 12 little children around me," staring intently at the visitor. His response? "I made pictures of them!"


Such encounters -- usually with happy endings -- are staples of photojournalism. His passion, however, lies beyond the next drought, famine or civil war: During his 25-year career at The New York Times, Higgins has devoted himself to photographing Africans wherever they live. His images have been compiled into "Feeling the Spirit: Searching the World for the People of Africa," a 94-print exhibition opening Thursday at the King Arts Complex. (A companion book was published in 1995.)
"I deal with the universality of being human and the uniqueness of the African experience," he said. "I use my camera to search for the many manifestations of people of color." Unlike many other photographers, Higgins feels a deep connection to his subjects. "I am a microcosm of all the people I photograph," he said.


His story of the African diaspora begins in Ethiopia, the cradle of humanity. Higgins captures rare views of monks living in cave dwellings near12th-century rock churches, then offers a personal vision of much-photographed tourist sites near Luxor, Egypt. He shows the grandeur as well as the gritty reality of ancient civilizations, in the same way he commingles photojournalism and art photography.


"Light is my mistress," he said. It skims his subjects, creating a contrasty richness of detail woven into the black-and-white prints.


His soul-wrenching images from the "Door of No Return" in Senegal, where enslaved Africans were forced to voyage to the Americas, balance glimpses of everyday life in Mali and Ghana, in Central and South America, in Alabama and even around the corner from his Brooklyn home.


Getting "real" moments on film, he said, involves simple principles: First, he travels alone. Then, in a country, he aligns himself with the church community; not only do its members provide contacts, but they frequently become his subjects. "When people are worshipping, it's a very private moment. I try to Zen myself as water. I don't create ripples."


Growing up in a small Alabama town taught him how to speak comfortably to strangers -- a skill that has served him well. "You have to love people and then let them love you," he advised.


He doesn't stay in hotels, preferring homes instead. Obviously, language barriers pose big problems. "I learn a few words, maybe 12 basic phrases," he said. When a conversation becomes more involved, "I put them in the role of a teacher. They become my guide that way."


His experience at Tuskegee (Ala.) University from 1964 to 1970 impelled his desire to show the true spirit and dignity of African people. As a participant in anti-war and civil-rights marches, Higgins saw himself and his friends as patriots supporting constitutional rights. The news media portrayed them differently. "We were seen as more black than American. We were visually lynched by the media," he said. "Their image of my people didn't reflect the people I know."


Nowhere did he find images of people like his mother, a schoolteacher who championed education; or his father, a businessman who ran a dry-cleaning business. Tired of the one-dimensional treatment, he began his photographic mission. Now, with "Feeling the Spirit," he hopes to redefine the visual record of people of color. "I discover the breadth, then bring the breadth back."The Details


Chester Higgins Jr. will speak during the free opening reception for "Feeling the Spirit: Searching the World for the People of Africa"
from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday in the King Arts Complex, 867 Mount Vernon Ave. Afterward, the exhibit will be open from 1 to 4
p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and 5 to 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays through Nov. 14. The suggested donation is $2, or $1 for children.
For more information, call 252-5464.

 

 

 
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