On Accessing Art as an Amateur: Dominique Moody’s “Ancestral Praise House” (1996)

Photo Courtesy of artist website.

Back in December of last year, I visited one of my favorite local museums — CAAM and found God in in the Dust My Broom: Southern Vernacular from the Permanent Collection via a intricate piece by artist Dominique Moody. Completed in 1996, her “Ancestral Praise House” piece was inspired by small wooden structures where Gullah women, people of the sea lands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia who were descendants of slaves, used to pray.


Back in the 90’s Moody and her sister drove to South Carolina visiting several Gullah communities along the coast speaking with the griots of their communities and also meeting different artists. The experiences from this trip helped inspire this unique piece laden with many different materials. The structure itself is a house with steps leading up with a pit at the bottom. It is a piece cobbled together and at first glance it may look like disorganization to some but let me assure you Ancestral Praise House is worthy of a second look. Even a third. A fourth.

Mosaic like pieces of glass adorn each side that creates an image that can’t be confined to just one side of the little house. The more and more I looked at it, the more detail it revealed: I first thought of houses and structures with four walls. We build up places for safety, for comfort, for communing with others, don’t we? Houses, places to worship and the like. Some of these places have a level of intimacy attached to them — you don’t invite just anybody to your home, do you you?

Yet there’s no door and a window in the far back that’s open too. It’s an open place but for whom? With this in mind, It’s worth noting that Moody salvaged mirror and stained window fragments from firebombed Black churches and held on to them to later complete this piece. The light reading at the exhibit gave me a little insight: the artist created this piece with a loved one in mind. She and her family were in mourning of her nephew dead having been killed by the police.

This places greater significance with different layers meaning and when I realized this piece was probably a way to not just work through grief but also pay homage to her family, recently deceased and ancestors long passed.

One of favorite my materials that Moody used in Ancestral Praise House are the shells and what a blessed story is behind them! On the trip that the artist took to her sister, on Igbo Landing she collected a number of objects including twigs, sand and shells. Of Gullah/Geechee historians and griots there’s an story of captured Africans who committed mass suicide by drowning rather than begin life in America as slaves there at Igbo Landing. Now this place, along the Georgia coast is a memorial. It is a place, that is no doubt, a place of various emotions — even just seeing photos invokes some type of experience — for me. I can’t imagine what it was like to be there in person and learn about the history by descendants of folks in the area, the caretakers of this place.

Along with the glass fragments from firebombed Black churches, “Ancestral Praise House” becomes a piece of art that collectively speaks to the African American experience: of places with great emotions — of tragedy and resilience, of death and rebirth and so much more.

The shells gathered from the shore line include cowrie shells — which can be found nearly all over the world — hold greater significance to many of those of African descent. Once used as currency especially in West Africa, the cowrie shell holds much symbolic significance: from being used to divine with spirits including your ancestors, to fortune telling to be adorned in hair. They have been and are still used in as jewelry and hair accessories. Cowrie shells are be found all over the “Ancestral Praise House” near its base and a much larger one in size and hue can be found on the right side near the back.

I love this including of the cowrie shell: adding worth and an even greater connection to communing with nature and spirituality that exists outside of a church house is fascinating.

Some other symbols that stand out are the star and crescent moon in the mosaic glass fragments, the feather and stick and the coins at the bottom. I can’t forget those eyes set on the black figure staring out: commanding attention and effectively making me think of them days later. All those small details add this striking piece and made me circle back and forth finding new details to discover and wonder about.

After moving to Los Angeles, Dominique Moody’s body of work is grouped in with artists who practiced various forms of assemblage including Betty Saar, Noah Purefoy, and Charles Dickson. “Ancestral Praise House” is a wonderful creation that speaks to the African diaspora and of the American Black South’s traditions of spirituality, community and seeing themselves make their mark.

[All other photos minus the cover image and the author photo above were shot by me]

Read more about the artist here.

While The California African American Museum is now temporarily closed due to COVID-19, I highly stress everyone to check the #Museumfromhome tag and of course, all of CAAM’S social media platforms: like their Twitter, Instagram and their Youtube accounts. I’m looking forward to visiting once all this blows over!

⭐️ Writer, Editor & Media Scholar with an affinity for red lipstick living in California. Writes about literature, art, cinema & amazing women. ⭐️

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