Praise House Project to install public art throughout metro Atlanta honoring African American history

By Emma Yarbrough | Emory Report | Sept. 21, 2021

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Emory Arts and Atlanta artist-activist Charmaine Minniefield have partnered on the Praise House Project to place three site-specific public art installations in metro Atlanta. Image: Projection collage in the interior of the Praise House at Oakland Cemetery presented by Flux Projects, featuring images from the Langmuir Collection at Emory's Stuart A. Rose Library and more. Photograph by Julie Yarbrough.

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The National Endowment for the Arts has awarded a 2021-23 Our Town Grant to Emory for the Praise House Project, which will place site-specific public art installations in three separate locations throughout metro Atlanta, uplifting the African American history of each community.

The Praise House Project emerges out of a partnership between Emory Arts and Atlanta artist-activist Charmaine Minniefield, who will introduce the project at Emory’s upcoming symposium “In the Wake of Slavery and Dispossession: Emory, Racism and the Journey Towards Restorative Justice,” Sept. 29-Oct. 1.

Three praise houses will be installed as part of the project: at Emory, the Decatur Square and the historic South View Cemetery.

“We are thrilled and humbled by this opportunity to bring Charmaine Minniefield’s Praise House project to the Emory campus, and — in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts — to enable it to move throughout our region,” says Kevin Karnes, vice provost for the arts. “Bringing our campus community together with residents of DeKalb County and the city of Atlanta for crucial conversations about slavery, racial injustice and buried histories is at the core of the work of Emory Arts. I know of no artist whose work inspires those discussions more powerfully than Minniefield’s.”

Praise houses were small, usually wooden, structures used by enslaved peoples for worship and gathering throughout the American Southeast. As an act of resistance, worshipers would gather in a circle performing full-body rhythmic movement in what was known as the Ring Shout. Their shuffling and stomping of feet and clapping their hands created a type of communal drum — secretly preserving their cultural identity and traditions.

“The Ring Shout was reborn during enslavement in the American South in radical resistance against efforts and systems that dismantled cultural identity and community. These often-secret spaces were places for a community’s collective prayer to imagine freedom,” says Minniefield. 

On Decatur Square, a praise house will permanently replace the Confederate monument at the DeKalb History Center as part of the county’s 2022 centennial celebration. Another praise house will be installed at South View Cemetery, the final resting place for many prominent Atlantans that was established in South Atlanta by the city’s African American community in 1886. 

The third praise house, at Emory, will honor enslaved peoples and dispossessed native and Indigenous communities, acknowledging Emory’s connection with slavery and the displacement of the Muscogee (Creek) people who once called the lands home where the university’s campuses now reside. 

Although the Decatur praise house will be a permanent structure, the houses at South View Cemetery and Emory will be temporary. The South View praise house will be on display through Juneteenth 2022; the Emory structure will be in place through the fall 2022 academic semester.

“By reflecting on the Ring Shout, each installation demonstrates the importance and persistence of these seminal traditions, spaces and worship practices as cultural evidence of the endurance of a people and resistance against erasure still today,” says Minniefield.

The Emory installation will also commemorate the legacy of the late Pellom McDaniels III, activist, historian and curator of African American collections at the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library. McDaniels, who passed away in April 2020, worked throughout his career to build bridges between scholars and the communities they study, allowing people to rediscover their collective history. He was instrumental in appointing Minniefield to a yearlong residency with the Rose Library in 2019-20, an engagement that planted the seeds that grew into the Praise House project.

The Praise House project partners hope to inspire scholarly research by Emory students and faculty while inviting the broader community to engage with the college’s resources on African American history, including the Rose Library’s African American collections and Slave Voyages archives.

“The Praise House Project represents more than a singular achievement for an artist of great talent but also the coming together of a community of artists, scholars, activists, students and other professionals from all over the city to bring it to life,” says Clint Fluker, curator of African American Collections with the Rose Library. “Charmaine’s brilliance is marked by her vision of what’s possible. Her unique gift to us all is her ability to bring diverse people together in an effort to make the history and legacies of African American culture sing through her art.”

While on campus, the public art installation will be accompanied by complementary programming, including an exhibition of two-dimensional work by Minniefield at the Michael C. Carlos Museum titled “Indigo Prayers.” The Praise House Project is presented by Emory Arts in collaboration with the Carlos Museum and the Rose Library. For more information on the Praise House Project, visit arts.emory.edu/praisehouse.

About the artist

The work of artist-activist Charmaine Minniefield preserves Black narratives as a radical act of social justice. Firmly rooted in womanist social theory and ancestral veneration, her work draws from Indigenous traditions, as seen throughout Africa and the Diaspora, to explore African and African American history, memory and ritual as an intentional pushback against erasure. Her creative practice is community-based, as her research and resulting bodies of work often draw from the physical archives as she excavates the stories of African American women-led resistance, spirituality and power.

Minniefield’s recent public works, which include projection mapping and site-specific installation, incite dialogue around race, class and power. Through interdisciplinary collaboration, she incorporates other art forms to virtually bridge the past to the present. Recent projects include the mounting of “Remembrance as Resistance: Preserving Black Narratives” in Atlanta’s historic Oakland Cemetery which honored the more than 800 unmarked graves recently discovered within the African American Burial Grounds through the multimedia installation of a praise house. Her Praise House project went on to receive a prestigious Our Town grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Minniefield’s work is featured in a number of public and private collections, and as a muralist, her walls can be seen throughout the city of Atlanta and beyond. She was honored by Mercedes Benz as a part of their Greatness Lives Here campaign. She is featured in the 2020 U.S. census commercial with her recent mural in Brooklyn depicting women who shaped the future. Minniefield recently served as the Rose Library artist-in-residence at Emory through a collaboration with Flux Projects and as the curator of Elevate for the city of Atlanta Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs. She currently splits her time in residence between Atlanta and The Gambia, where she continues to study the origins of her cultural identity and Indigenous traditions by tracing ancestral memories of the Ring Shout.