looking at a painting
Art Appreciation for Everybody—Halim Flowers, “4 Black Girls & 1 Klansman Connected to the Same Cross”

Teresa Cochran | In the Know | June 24, 2021

About Art Appreciation for Everybody

We all have preferences that show up in our “taste” and “style.” Mostly, these are shaped by what we have been exposed to. You’ll sometimes hear someone say, “I know what I like”—and they may even know why they like it. We call on these preferences to make fashion choices, design our living spaces, and often, to choose the cultural experiences we seek out.

So then, what do we do with art that does not seem, at first glance, to line up with our personal taste and style? Without years of training, how can we come to appreciate it?

Art genres and forms we are unfamiliar with are like “cooking” with “ingredients”—styles, references, ideas—that are new and different. We may need to “develop a taste” for new kinds of art, understand the significance, and appreciate the origin stories, but they are not (generally) indecipherable. Pulling apart some of the layers can often help us understand and appreciate unfamiliar forms of art. 

By the time you start evaluating an artwork, you probably already know if you like it or not. The point of evaluating it is to discover why. What aspects of it don’t work for you? What aspects do? Don’t hold too tightly to your original impression. As you understand more, you might find you can see the artwork with new eyes and a new appreciation.

This post is the first in a series looking at Engage Art submissions through the lens of art appreciation. We are not professional art historians, but we have decades of experience with and interest in many art forms. Consider this a starting point for reflecting on art. 

4 Black Girls & 1 Klansman Connected to the Same Cross

Today, we’re discussing 4 Black Girls & 1 Klansman Connected to the Same Cross, a Visual Arts Finalist in the 2020 Engage Art Contest.

“4 Black Girls & 1 Klansman Connected to the Same Cross” by Halim A. Flowers

A set of prompts can give you a structure to evaluate a piece of art. You can find prompts for different types of art in our free eCourse Module 3.

To better understand this particular artwork, we’ll look at these four layers:

  • The historical context portrayed
  • The art styles referenced 
  • The Scriptures cited 
  • The artist, Halim Flowers

Context

This painting depicts a pivotal moment in American history.

On Sunday, September 15, 1963, four members of the Ku Klux Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young girls who were inside. Public outrage at the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing marked a turning point in the United States during the Civil Rights Movement, and the Civil Rights Act passed the following year. 

The explosion at the 16th Street Baptist Church blew a seven-foot hole in the rear wall of the church and left a five-foot wide crater. Source: History Collection.

On May 25, 2020, George Floyd died in police custody, once again sparking an immediate spike in civil rights protests across the US and world. This event followed years of increasing visibility and activism to decrease police violence toward people of color in America. Halim Flowers submitted 4 Black Girls & 1 Klansman to the Engage Art Contest on May 28, 2020, just three days after Floyd’s death. Was this piece finished well before Floyd’s death? Was the artwork created in response to it? Had he been pondering a piece like this for years? We do not know, but the timing of the submission seems relevant.

How does the context—both from 1963 and 2020—add a layer of understanding to your engagement with this artwork?

Neo-Expressionism and Conceptualism

Next, we look at this artwork through the lens of two major styles of art: neo-expressionism and conceptualism.

Neo-Expressionism

Neo-expressionism emerged in the 1970s and emphasizes using materials in an unrefined way. These are the artworks where people say, “My 5-year-old could do that!” In neo-expressionism, you can expect:

  • simple art materials used in a simple, often childlike way.  
  • shapes and colors used more as ideas, connected conceptually. 
  • a complex emotional impact greater than the sum of its parts.

Neo-Expressionism: Fishing, 1981 – Jean-Michel Basquiat

Here are some neo-expressionist traits we observe (and love!) in this piece:

  • The church is shaped like a tombstone.
  • The four children, the Klansman, and the church are all the same color, showing a connection between them or a certain kind of sameness.
  • The girls are shaped and proportioned like the church/tombstone.
  • The Klansman’s form is much larger and “bloated.” All four girls could fit inside the bottom half of his gown. He takes up more space. And yet he is dwarfed by the church, topped by the cross that shows who wins in the end.
  • The red of the TNT markings—the only red in the image, and a stark contrast to the gold, brown, and white—does it signify evil?

The emotional impact of neo-expressionism is greater than the sum of its parts. What is the emotional impact of these details?

Conceptualism

This painting also stands in the tradition of conceptual art. In conceptual art, the image or object or performance is not important, but its role as a vehicle for an idea (a concept!) is.

Western Christian Civilization, 1965 – Leon Ferrari

Here are some conceptual qualities we love about 4 Black Girls & 1 Klansman Connected to the Same Cross:

  • The TNT is between the Klansman and the church, symbolically barring his way into that sanctuary.
  • In contrast, the girls have a doorway available to them and are unimpeded in going up the stairs to it.
  • The way the girls and the Klansman are literally on “different sides.” From his vantage point, the Klansman cannot see (the humanity of?) the girls.
  • The “one nation under God indivisible” is from the American Pledge of Allegiance, which all the people depicted in this painting (and the Americans looking at it) are likely to know by heart. But the meaning of the quote is in direct conflict with the division portrayed in the painting.

What ideas in this artwork strike you as important? 

As a trend, Neo-expressionism was a rebellion against Conceptualism. Neo-expressionists sought to show the world as it is and not just convey an idea. How does the neo-expressionist style of this artwork heighten or diminish the important ideas it conveys?

Scripture Citations

It’s a good idea to think carefully about anything written as part of a piece of visual art. They were most likely chosen with great care. Let’s look at the two passages included in this piece.

Matthew 18:1-10 is above the children entering the church: 


About that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?”

Jesus called a little child to him and put the child among them. Then he said, “I tell you the truth, unless you turn from your sins and become like little children, you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven. So anyone who becomes as humble as this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.

“And anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf is welcoming me. But if you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to have a large millstone tied around your neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea.

“What sorrow awaits the world, because it tempts people to sin. Temptations are inevitable, but what sorrow awaits the person who does the tempting. So if your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It’s better to enter eternal life with only one hand or one foot than to be thrown into eternal fire with both of your hands and feet. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It’s better to enter eternal life with only one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.

“Beware that you don’t look down on any of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels are always in the presence of my heavenly Father.”


In this passage, Jesus emphasizes that children are precious to God and should be treated as precious by all who follow God. 

How does this citation connect with the four young girls? Is it straightforward? Or are there subtleties to consider?

Numbers 25 is over the Klansman:


While the Israelites were camped at Acacia Grove, some of the men defiled themselves by having sexual relations with local Moabite women. These women invited them to attend sacrifices to their gods, so the Israelites feasted with them and worshiped the gods of Moab. In this way, Israel joined in the worship of Baal of Peor, causing the Lord’s anger to blaze against his people.

The Lord issued the following command to Moses: “Seize all the ringleaders and execute them before the Lord in broad daylight, so his fierce anger will turn away from the people of Israel.” So Moses ordered Israel’s judges, “Each of you must put to death the men under your authority who have joined in worshiping Baal of Peor.”

Just then one of the Israelite men brought a Midianite woman into his tent, right before the eyes of Moses and all the people, as everyone was weeping at the entrance of the Tabernacle. When Phinehas son of Eleazar and grandson of Aaron the priest saw this, he jumped up and left the assembly. He took a spear and rushed after the man into his tent. Phinehas thrust the spear all the way through the man’s body and into the woman’s stomach. So the plague against the Israelites was stopped, but not before 24,000 people had died.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Phinehas son of Eleazar and grandson of Aaron the priest has turned my anger away from the Israelites by being as zealous among them as I was. So I stopped destroying all Israel as I had intended to do in my zealous anger. Now tell him that I am making my special covenant of peace with him. In this covenant, I give him and his descendants a permanent right to the priesthood, for in his zeal for me, his God, he purified the people of Israel, making them right with me.”

The Israelite man killed with the Midianite woman was named Zimri son of Salu, the leader of a family from the tribe of Simeon. The woman’s name was Cozbi; she was the daughter of Zur, the leader of a Midianite clan.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Attack the Midianites and destroy them, because they assaulted you with deceit and tricked you into worshiping Baal of Peor, and because of Cozbi, the daughter of a Midianite leader, who was killed at the time of the plague because of what happened at Peor.”


This is an Old Testament cautionary tale of the people of Israel angering God by practicing idolatry. The subsequent murder of an Israelite and his partner who were sinning in a particularly brazen way halts God’s anger. God establishes a “covenant of peace” with the murderer, Phineas, saying his descendants will have a covenant of lasting priesthood. 

The idea of “The Phineas Priesthood” became popular among some American domestic terrorists beginning in the 1990s. Some of their writings reference this story to justify violent and illegal acts against groups these extremists see as “enemies of Christianity.”

How does the addition of this scripture (and its contemporary usage) shift the meaning of the artwork?

By including these citations above the figures, the artist is clearly asking us to consider the relationships between these people and these Scriptures. All of that is wrapped in the well known historical event he is portraying, as well as the long tail of its aftermath, which reaches all the way to current events.

Are there ways that these two Scriptures connect? Are there concepts common to both of them? What insights do you think the artist is trying to convey by adding these references?

The Artist

The artist is Halim A. Flowers, an award-winning documentarian and activist for criminal justice reform who was given two life sentences in Washington, D.C., at the age of 16. He spent 22 years in jail.

Halim Flowers
Halim Flowers

While there, he started a publishing company and published 11 books. He was released in 2019, started speaking around the country for the Represent Justice Prison Reform Coalition, and was awarded a string of fellowships and artist-in-residence opportunities. His artistic focus is now on what he calls a “PhotoPoetry” practice.

War Of The Worlds, Acrylic & Oil Sticks, 08-11-20, also by Halim Flowers. Photo Credit: halim-flowers.com/art

When asked to explain 4 Black Girls & 1 Klansman Connected to the Same Cross, the artist wrote:

“In this piece, I paint the images of the 4 Black girls that were killed in the bombing beneath the scripture of Matthew 18:1-10, juxtaposed from an image of 1 Klansman beneath the scripture of Numbers 25:1-18. 

“This shows how the spiritual battle between good and evil can lay claim to the same Bible, but use them for opposite forces of righteousness and wickedness. The scripture tells us that children are sacred, yet white supremacists use scripture to justify their evil of bombing churches and burning crosses.”

Halim Flowers

Reflect and Respond

Art often strives to evoke reflection and even response. What comes to mind when you look at the artwork now? Having walked through these layers of meaning, do you see it differently? Do you have an intellectual response? an emotional one?

If you feel moved to respond to this artwork more concretely, here are a few ideas: 

  • talk about it with a friend.
  • research and learn more. 
  • speak out for justice and engage in activism in your neighborhood.
  • write! (journal, op ed, article, blog, etc.)
  • create art as a response
  • experiment with making art in this style
  • leave comments for us on this blog post

If you started this post with a reluctance to consider art that you don’t “get” right away, has that attitude been eroded a bit? We hope so! Art really is for everybody.

We also hope you’ll join us the next time we evaluate a piece from Engage Art’s Gallery. Feel free to find works you would like to evaluate for yourself—take your time and enjoy the process! Evaluating other people’s work is a wonderful way to exercise your art thinking skills, expand your ability to enjoy more types of art, get your own creative juices flowing, and bring new ideas into your own art practice. 

In any case, we hope you will continue to explore new types of creativity as you Engage Culture, Engage Scripture, and Engage Art. 


About the author: Teresa Cochran has been involved in various arts since she was 3. As an adult, she has been immersed in visual, literary, and performing arts for decades, over time developing a professional focus on public art, public participation, public space planning, and facilitating juries to choose artists and art. She’s also mother to two artists and wife to another, a permaculturist, 4-H leader, practiced chef for special diets, and a proponent of arts-integrated, Montessori, and International Baccalaureate education. Teresa is the Contest and Content Director at Engage Art and has been with the contest since its inception.

Submit Your Artwork Today!

Curious? Interested in submitting artwork to our contest? Know someone who might be? Through April 14th, 2022, the Engage Art Contest is open to the whole world! Get your foot in the door by claiming your Artist Page now!