Despite clergy complaint, ‘Preacher Pimp’ painting to remain at Macon museum

The Tubman African American Museum board voted unanimously Thursday not to take down a painting there depicting a “Preacher Pimp” that half a dozen or so local clergy members have complained about.

Word of the objection didn’t emerge widely until earlier this week.

The painting, “The Preacher Pimp,” appears in a cross-adorned, church-shaped frame, and is a representation of what Fort Valley-raised artist Alfred Conteh has called “one of the more influential and more powerful pimps.”

The painting debuted at the Cherry Street museum three years ago and is part of Conteh’s “Pimp Series,” which features paintings of 13 everyday hustlers or cons -- “Athlete Pimp,” “Property-Owning Pimp” and “Mother Pimp” among them.

In explaining his work, Conteh has said of “Preacher Pimp” that “people know that he’s doing wrong, that he’s sleeping around, that he’s, you know, touching boys or stealing, and they’ll still take up for him in the end.”

Those who first complained at a museum function in May were apparently unaware that the painting, which Conteh donated to the museum, had been in the Tubman collection since 2012.

The curator there, Jeffrey Bruce, said, “The complaint is that it’s negative, it’s insulting and an offensive image of the black clergy.”

Bruce said, “Our point is that it’s not about the black church. It’s about any individual who presents themselves in that role as a way to take advantage of other people. Basically, the kind of wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing story. ... This is not a blanket condemnation of any institution. It is just about abuse that happens in just about every walk of life.”

One of the area pastors with concerns about the artwork was at the museum Thursday, and he called the painting “distasteful.”

The Rev. Ronald E. Terry of New Fellowship Baptist Church in east Macon said the whole series should be on display, not just the “Preacher Pimp” painting that hangs in a first-floor gallery along with the works of other Georgia artists.

The title of the painting and a yellow-lettered, eight-sentence block of text within it comes from the 1997 book by Alfred “Bilbo” Gholson, “The Pimp’s Bible: The Sweet Science of Sin.”

The passage, next to a silhouette of a minister with his left hand on a parishioner’s head, notes that its subject is known to sermonize that “I want twenty good men to come to the front and put $20 in the basket.”

Its narrator adds, “It is unbelievable how many men race to be a ‘good man.’”

Terry, the Macon pastor, said, “The artist, since he talks about everything bad that’s black, maybe he’s the real pimp. ... He who talks about my hair is really worried about his hair.”

Told of Terry’s remark, Conteh, the artist, said by phone, “That’s an interesting assessment. It doesn’t make sense, but it’s interesting nonetheless. ... Hey, hit dogs will holler. ... Maybe I struck a nerve, maybe hit close to home.”

Conteh, 39, said he heard that “a contingent of black preachers” had lodged a complaint a couple of months ago but didn’t think much about it.

“I was like, ‘OK, cool,’” he said.

The museum’s executive director, Andy Ambrose, in revealing the Tubman board’s decision not to censor the work, declined to identify who had come to the museum with concerns about Conteh’s work, but he said the complaint “did catch us by surprise.”

Ambrose said there had not been any opposition to the painting from museumgoers in the past.

“This has really come more, in every instance, from clergy who have been offended,” he said.

“And we understand that. We have met and talked with them. ... We can acknowledge the complaint, we can understand the complaint, but what we can’t do is censor a piece. And that’s what we’ve been asked to do.”

Ambrose said the request to remove the painting came with the assurance that if it was taken down there would be no “negative response or protest.”

Bruce, the Tubman’s curator, said the stir may serve to attract visitors.

He said, “I’ve had people come in and say, ‘Can you show me where this thing is that’s so controversial?’ ... I say to them, ‘Well, here it is,’ and I explain to them the story, and nobody has walked away and said, ‘This is just disgraceful.’”

To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397 or find him on Twitter@joekovacjr.