By Paul Chaffee
The following “Exhibit Introduction” accompanies the photography exhibit Golden States of Grace – Prayers of the Disinherited and was published in the book by the same name in 2010 by the University of New Mexico Press.
Giving Voice to the Silenced
Golden States of Grace – Prayers of the Disinherited takes us on a religious odyssey through California communities-of-faith we never imagined were there… the nation’s only halfway-house for addicts self-identified as Jewish, a transsexual gospel choir, a Buddhist community in San Quentin, a Mormon congregation organized by the deaf for the deaf, Latina sex workers worshiping St. Death, a Mexican folk deity, and more. The collection is thoroughly interfaith – American Indian, Buddhist, Catholic, Hindu, intentional interfaith, Jewish, Latter Day Saint, Muslim, Pentecostal, Protestant, and spiritualist traditions are represented.
In all, 11 communities on the fringes of life today in California opened their doors and trusted Rick Nahmias to enter with his camera, a remarkable tribute from people who have little reason to trust the outside world. They must have sensed the caring, non-judgmental attitude the artist enjoys. California is a state that prizes an unparalleled ethnic, racial, religious, and sexual diversity. But as you look at Golden States of Grace, one photograph after another, your ability to quit fearing the stranger, to look at and acknowledge the ‘other,’ stretches and deepens.
If these exotic contexts tempt the voyeur, seeing the photographs is a gentle rebuke, for they are grounded in respect. The humanness of the portraits is humbling, puncturing our judgments about ‘those’ kinds of people. They have drifted from the mainstream, found themselves outcast, yet their humanity shines through like a light undimmed by life’s tough circumstances. Not only do we see them. Nahmias talked with his subjects, listened to their prayers, and recorded their words, juxtaposing the quotations with exhibit’s prints. The words resonate in the through the images, intensifying the whole experience.
An earlier Rick Nahmias collection focused on migrant workers, another largely invisible community in our midst, men and women who ensure the daily cornucopia of fruit and vegetables in California kitchens. As in Golden States of Grace, Nahmias cuts through our expectations and stereotypes to find the beauty and vitality of people living on the edge in this land of abundance.
Religious community is the added element in this new collection – spiritual gatherings not from one tradition but nearly a dozen. At every stop on the journey, without seeming intrusive, the camera provides a window into the spiritual practices of the marginalized. Nahmias’ images convey a palpable sense that we are witnessing the breath of the Spirit in each group, however they define Spirit. It is a moving experience and upsets old assumptions.
When congregation suggests something more mainstream than marginalized, Nahmias seems to be saying, we’ve forgotten our origins. These are the people whose suffering inspired the Buddha’s quest for enlightenment. The destitution of the weak and oppressed was mourned by Hebrew prophets. The disenfranchised kept catching Jesus’ attention. Helping the disadvantaged is a pillar of Islam. In spite of this common heritage, if we’ve learned to turn our face away from the poor and powerless, these photographs make it safe to care about them, to recognize them, perhaps for the first time, as members of the family.
Golden States of Grace Itinerary
Chicago Theological Seminary
March 26-May 31, 2012
Aliso Viejo, Calfornia
September 13-November 11, 2012
First Street Gallery, Humboldt State University
January 14-March 8, 2013
St. Mungo Museum of Religious Life & Art