Akili Ron Anderson’s bas relief at the building of the Studio Acting Conservatory in Washington, DC (courtesy of the Studio Acting Conservatory)

A massive frieze reimagining the Last Supper was recently discovered in a former church in Washington, DC after it had been hidden behind drywall for a full decade. The forgotten artwork’s reemergence tells a story of gentrification and DC’s Black community.

The frieze was discovered during the rehaul of a building in Columbia Heights that will soon become home to the Studio Acting Conservatory, a contemporary theater studio in DC. In the 1980s, the building housed the New Home Baptist Church, a Black church that has since moved to Landover, Maryland. The building was then used for the Mormon Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints until it was sold to a real estate developer who planned to transform into condos. The Acting Conservatory bought the building from the developer earlier this year after an acrimonious split from the Studio Theater. A $1.5 million gift from local philanthropists helped the conservatory purchase the building from the developer, who offered the building for sale after failing to get the permits needed to fulfill their plans for the building.

The bas relief is the work of Washington-based artist Akili Ron Anderson, and it was completed in 1982. Anderson, who now teaches at Howard University, is best known in DC for his stained glass windows which can be seen at the Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel at Howard and at the entrances to the Columbia Heights Metro Station. Back in the early 80s, he was the first Black chairperson of the visual arts department at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. When the church custodian approached him with an offer to create the work, he was happy to oblige.

Anderson, who at the time lived around the corner from the church, created the work on site. “I worked on it between their choir rehearsals, their church and Sunday schools, and got it done,” Anderson told Hyperallergic in a phone conversation. “I don’t even remember how much they paid me,” he laughed.

Twenty-two feet wide and 11 feet high, the relief depicts Jesus and his apostles in the figures and faces of local people from the Columbia Heights community. “Images of Jesus as a person of color have been suppressed throughout history,” Anderson said. “The historical Jesus was a person of color. He was not preaching color, he was preaching goodness, but why lie about it?”

A photo of Akili Ron Anderson’s bas relief at the New Home Baptist Church in Columbia Heights during the 1980s (courtesy the artist)

Anderson, however, objects the term “Black Jesus,” which he says was used by the local press to describe the main character in his piece. “There used to be a group called the Black Jesus movement, but it was started by whites, not Blacks,” he said. “We don’t call him ‘Black Jesus’, we call him ‘the Jesus of history.’”

The drywall that covered the sculpture was constructed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints when moved into the building in the early 1990s. Before that, the New Home Baptist Church reached out to Anderson about uninstalling the work but had no budget for a project of that scale. The artwork is built into the wall, which made it difficult and expensive to extract. “They contacted me at the time, but I had no vision of moving the work,” the artist said. “It wasn’t in my mindset as a young person that we had to leave the place we grew up in.”

His Frieze was not to the liking of the new Mormon church, Andreson told Hyperallergic: “They covered the wall so they won’t have to look at the sculpture.” According to the artist, the real estate developer who later bought the building did not even know about the sculpture’s existence. It was only discovered when the conservatory started tearing down walls for its new studios.

For Anderson, who’s now in his 70s, the discovery of his frieze is a painful reminder of the displacement of his community. “It was a community which has changed dramatically by what people call gentrification,” he said. “It was all Black and now it’s pretty much all white.”

Anderson described a strong feeling of alienation when he returned to his old neighborhood to see his sculpture. “I felt like a visitor,” he said. “Like I have to leave because I’m not welcomed.”

“I’m not saying everybody is to blame, but it’s a reality that people of color, have been displaced,” Anderson added. “We don’t have a space that has been designated where we could develop in the same type of way.”

“I’m still in Washington, but my new neighborhood is changing daily,” he continued. “Nine out of ten times, a white person moves in. I’m not against white people in my community, but it seems like some kind of a plan. I turn around and I don’t see people who look like me in the neighborhood anymore.”

The acting conservatory is now hoping an institution or organization will take the sculpture. “All I want is for it to be in a place where people can see it,” Joy Zinoman, founder and director of the conservatory, told the Washingtonian. “I think it’s a great work.”

According to Anderson, the National Museum of African American History and Culture in DC sent representatives to see the sculpture, but he hasn’t heard from them yet. “I would like to see it there, at the museum downtown,” he said. “That’s a place I would feel strongly about.”

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Hakim Bishara

Hakim Bishara is Co-Editor of News at Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative...