In Hosea’s opening verses we encounter the story of Hosea and his estranged wife Gomer facing difficult times in the eighth century BCE northern kingdom of Israel. Centuries later in the south of the ‘New Jerusalem’ of the United States, we find the story of the African American Royal Robertson (1936–97) and Adell, his wife of nineteen years and mother of their twelve children.
These tales resonate most notably in the way that the prophetic vocation of both men was triggered by their wives’ traumatic infidelity.
A meagrely educated descendant of slaves, Royal Robertson managed, because of his talent for drawing, to eke out a life for his wife and children as a commercial sign painter. When Adell and the children left him, he suffered a nervous breakdown. He became increasingly hermetic and paranoid, seeing himself as sent to earth to warn of the perfidy of women and the duplicitous ways of the world. Like many visionary outsiders, he made his modest house and yard into an alarming visionary art environment—a kind of fantastic ‘mythological jambalaya’ (Arnett 2000: 444)—cluttered with biblical quotations, warnings of doom, depictions of flying saucers, pornographic scenes with nubile space amazons, apocalyptic sermonic rants, and meticulous hand-drawn calendars tabulating his troubles and despair.
In Prophet Royal Robertson’s furious words, the treacherous adultery of ‘divorce whores’ was simultaneously the cause of his tragically fractured life and his gift for visionary prophecy. This marital rupture became a defining metaphor for the covenantal relationship between earthly men and women and the relationship between the heavenly God and his chosen people—whether the Israelites let out of bondage or the black folk of the United States emancipated from slavery. Yet, the freedom found by being chosen by God only led to further tragedies caused by ‘demonic principalities and powers’ and often by the wicked unfaithfulness and craven monetary idolatry of God’s own people (we see all this in Hosea 12).
In the cases of both Howard Finster (also included in this exhibition) and Robertson, as of many prophets or ‘seers’ whose witness is in the Bible, it is often difficult to distinguish between godliness and dementia, between compulsive visionary saintliness and wrathful madness. Whatever the case, look and listen carefully to what comes from God’s astronauts from the sky, those UFO planets above and beyond the light of the sun. Whatever the source or time, the basic message is to repent or be damned.
Allamel, Frédéric. 2001. ‘“Prophet” Royal Robertson’s Architectural Odyssey: Psycho-Spatial Drama in Three Acts’, Southern Quarterly, 39: 152–68
Arnett, Paul. 2000. ‘Royal Robertson’, in Souls Grown Deep, vol. 1: African American Vernacular Art of the South: The Tree Gave the Dove a Leaf, ed. by William S. Arnett (Atlanta: Tinwood Books), pp. 444–57
Gundaker, Grey and Judith McWillie. 2005. No Space Hidden: The Spirit of African American Yard Work (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press)
Thompson, Robert Farris. 1984. Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy (New York: Vintage)
Yelen, Alice Rae. 1995. Passionate Visions of the American South: Self-Taught Artists from 1940 to the Present (Jackson: New Orleans Museum of Art and University Press of Mississippi)
12Eʹphraim has encompassed me with lies,
and the house of Israel with deceit;
but Judah is still known by God,
and is faithful to the Holy One.
12Eʹphraim herds the wind,
and pursues the east wind all day long;
they multiply falsehood and violence;
they make a bargain with Assyria,
and oil is carried to Egypt.
2The Lord has an indictment against Judah,
and will punish Jacob according to his ways,
and requite him according to his deeds.
3In the womb he took his brother by the heel,
and in his manhood he strove with God.
4He strove with the angel and prevailed,
he wept and sought his favor.
He met God at Bethel,
and there God spoke with him—
5the Lord the God of hosts,
the Lord is his name:
6“So you, by the help of your God, return,
hold fast to love and justice,
and wait continually for your God.”
7A trader, in whose hands are false balances,
he loves to oppress.
8Eʹphraim has said, “Ah, but I am rich,
I have gained wealth for myself”;
but all his riches can never offset
the guilt he has incurred.
9I am the Lord your God
from the land of Egypt;
I will again make you dwell in tents,
as in the days of the appointed feast.
10I spoke to the prophets;
it was I who multiplied visions,
and through the prophets gave parables.
11If there is iniquity in Gilead
they shall surely come to nought;
if in Gilgal they sacrifice bulls,
their altars also shall be like stone heaps
on the furrows of the field.
12(Jacob fled to the land of Aram,
there Israel did service for a wife,
and for a wife he herded sheep.)
13By a prophet the Lord brought Israel up from Egypt,
and by a prophet he was preserved.
14Eʹphraim has given bitter provocation;
so his Lord will leave his bloodguilt upon him,
and will turn back upon him his reproaches.