Scholars explore religion and art in Baltimore

harold morales

By ARIELLA SHUA | March 28, 2019

Humanities in the Village, an ongoing series of workshops at Bird in Hand, hosted a discussion titled “Religion and Inequality in Baltimore” on Monday. Harold Morales, an associate professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Morgan State University led the discussion. He was joined by Amy Landau, the former director of Curatorial Affairs and Curator of Islamic, South and Southeast Asian art at the Walters Art Museum.

Morales researches ways for religious communities to help improve Baltimore’s future. He is currently the executive director of the Center for the Study of Religion and the City (CSRC). The organization was founded at Morgan State University and is looking to work with Hopkins and Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) students in the future. CSRC seeks to use religious communities to influence social justice issues in Baltimore. For the past 10 years, Morales has studied the Muslim communities of Baltimore. 

“A growing group of Latinos, Latinas, Latinxes in the United States were embracing Islam since the 1920s. In the 1970s it started to grow exponentially,” he said. 

He noted that while researching this Muslim community in Baltimore, he learned that people did not highlight the fact that they joined a different religion but instead emphasized the familiar aspects of the Islamic faith, including remembrance, recollecting and close familial ties. 

Morales found that the connection between religion and tradition is a common one. 

“Religious communities are based off of a form of collective remembering and then applying those memories,” he said. 

Morales grew up in Los Angeles and stated that he always felt that there was a connection between religion and the city. He and his family moved to Baltimore in 2015. Morales explained that he moved to an intersection between a white, wealthy neighborhood and a black, impoverished neighborhood. He recollected experiencing the racial tensions between the two neighborhoods and explained that eventually, the area’s socioeconomic condition worsened over time and more and more white families left. 

Morales views Baltimore in a similar way to Lawrence Brown, an associate professor at Morgan State University’s School of Community Health and Policy. Brown describes Baltimore as two separate, racially segregated cities. The “white L” area is the top left, middle and bottom right parts of Baltimore. The “black butterfly” makes up the majority of the city, fanning out from the center. CSRC hopes that its projects and studies will help improve the struggle between the sides.

In addition to studying religion, Morales has taken an active interest in the city’s murals. He believes that art and communities are intertwined. According to Morales, these murals build the structure of a city and impact its layout for years to come.

“I started to ask questions about the relationship between the murals and the memories conceived in the neighborhoods in which they are located,” he said.

Landau runs the Art, Religion & Cities course (ARC) at Morgan State alongside Morales. Both work with the Freer|Sackler Institute through the Smithsonian, which helped found the CSRC.

Landau explained that a large part of ARC is the study of religious artifacts in museums. She said that museums need to realize the importance of religious displays, especially because, according to Landau, religious matters are not frequently taught in public schools.

She also discussed the role of museums in society. She claimed that museums should accurately reflect society and surrounding communities, but at the present their staffs do not. Landau noted that she has worked at museums where the curatorial staff were only two percent black.

“Frankly, this is unacceptable,” she said. “It’s unacceptable anywhere and particularly unacceptable in a city like Baltimore.”

Toward the end of the talk, Morales and Landau answered audience questions. One asked what the role of religious institutions will be in the future. 

Morales said that, through CSRC, students are attending Turnaround Tuesdays. The program is held at Baltimore churches but is not traditionally religious in nature. It involves role-playing scenarios, exercises and a session called the “Spiritual Vitamin,” in which people share their thoughts and ideas on how to improve the city.

“It helps to create a threshold where people go beyond the traditional boundaries of church,” Morales said.

Morales and Landau asked the audience if they knew any non-traditional religious spaes. Suggestions included the Church of the Redeemer, the Baltimore Ethical Society, Beth Am Synagogue and Clay Pots. One audience member suggested the gallery spaces in town, such as the CopyCat Building and Station North. 

Morales wants to find a way to combine religion and art in order to help improve Baltimore. In its present state, he views the city as imperfect but under a facade. He pointed to the city’s artwork, in which vacant buildings are often covered by murals. 

“It seemed to me like there was a $5,000 paint job, thrown onto a much larger issue,” he said.

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