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J.B. Murray and the Scripts and Spirit Forms of Africa: Making the Connections
By Licia Clifton-James and Maude Southwell Wahlam
A Comparison of the Work of African American Artist, Protector and Healer, J.B. Murray, and Senegalese Protector and Healer, Serigne Bousso
By Licia Clifton-James, PhD
In the 33 years since his death, J.B. Murray has been described as a folk, outsider, vernacular and visionary artist. Expanded research of Murray’s work encourages new labels, such as African American spiritual healer, protector, shaman, and traditional healer or doctor. Traditional medicine[i] is known around the world, and the World Health Organization estimates that, in Africa, about 80% of the population rely on naturopathic or homeopathic medicine (or traditional medicine) as their primary form of health care.”[ii] With this high percentage, we need to accept and explore other methods of protecting and healing that Western methods do not recognize.
In addition, it has been reported that Africans practicing traditional healing display a “particularly keen insight into the social and psychological causes of illness.” [iii] When a healer first displays their work or abilities, it can bring on struggles within the family regarding social recognition. Africans typically look for help from traditional healers, with whom rituals may be performed to re-establish social harmony within the family and the community as well.
Murray’s form of production was script and figures. However, he was illiterate, but this does not mean his ancestors were. Among other religions as well, literate Muslims were included in the slave trade. In the early 1800s, one notable African Muslim eventually brought to Georgia through the Bahamas was Salih Bilali. James Hamilton Couper owned a plantation on St. Simon’s Island and wrote, in an article to the American Ethnological Society, regarding Bilali, one of his Muslim slaves, “He reads Arabic and has a Koran...in that language but does not write it...”[iv] This presence of Muslims in Georgia could have influenced Murray’s production of script.
The appearance of Murray’s script has greater connections to Arabic than to English, due to its more fluid form and extra markings. Islamic or Arabic script has extra marks, similar to the dots put above the letters i and j in English. These Arabic marks are called diacritics. Similar to these Arabic words, Murray chose to put multiple marks both above and below his script. Seeing examples of Islamic leaders and Arabic script during slavery within his home state of Georgia indicates that Murray’s ancestors, and therefore Murray himself, could have been impacted by the presence of Islam in Georgia.
A comparison also should be made between the placement of script in Murray’s work and the placement of lettering within Islamic works. When we compare Murray’s Untitled[v] from the Smithsonian with Talismanic Textile[vi] from the Art Institute of Chicago, we find similar constructions in the form of a geometrically placed text or script layout. Each artist chose to create squares, and, in Murray’s case, squares and some rectangles of script are repetitive in nature. Regarding Talismanic Textile, Kathleen Bickford Berzock informs us:
In Sufism, a form of Islamic mysticism that is widely practiced in Senegal, the repetition of verses from the Qu’ran and even of individual letters or words is a powerful and transcendent form of devotion. …Across Senegal, learned Sufi practitioners apply their esoteric knowledge of sacred writing to the therapeutic practices of divination, healing, and spiritual protection.[vii]
Berzock’s description is applicable to Murray’s work as well. In addition, Berzock characterizes the production of script as “forging a link between the written word and its sound.” This same link exists between Murray’s script and his voice while creating the script. Murray often recited scripture or mumbled as he wrote the script in his trance-like state.[viii] Berzock’s point that “repetition of verses…individual letters or words is a powerful and transcendent form of devotion,” also illuminates Murray’s probable intent. Seen on the left-hand side of Murray’s Smithsonian work[ix] about halfway down is a series of ‘O’s’, repetitively placed in a square format. Repetition can be seen throughout this piece and reaffirms the “powerful and transcendent form of devotion” Murray indicated he experienced while making these forms.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mentioned Murray’s Untitled[x] work from 1987 which can be compared to pages of the Bible. Murray was a devout Baptist and referenced the Bible a multitude of times. He created this piece in a columnar format, including both script and figures. Much like the Qu’ran copied in the Talismanic Textile, Murray appears to have replicated the multiple columns on Bible pages seen at his church.
The idea of God coming to Murray may have been a surprise to him, but his ancestral memories[xi] allowed him to accept his place as God’s “tool.” The fervor with which he received messages in trance-like states, and expressed God’s messages in his script and figures, demonstrates his connection to African spirituality, and protective and healing traditions.
J.B. Murray believed he received messages from God and accepted this as his spiritual calling, but he was unable to understand the script. He then believed God instructed him to go to the well on his property and get well-water to put in a clear bottle; he believed this bottle of well-water would allow him to understand the script and verbally relay messages to recipients. As instructed, he hand delivered these messages in sealed envelopes to members of his church congregation and the community, and verbally informed them of God’s message contained inside. This idea of sealed script is reminiscent of the writing enclosed in charms and amulets seen in cultures from Ethiopia in East Africa to many cultures in West Africa.
Reactions to Murray’s calling and script varied. Some believed he was psychologically unbalanced.[xii] Others were anxious an evil spirit was tricking him, and still others held that God had definitely called him.[xiii] With these mixed reactions, in 1978, Murray was jailed for about one week prior to being institutionalized at Central State Mental Hospital.[xiv] After approximately six weeks, Murray was found to be of no harm to himself or others and released from the hospital.[xv] Had Murray been in an African community with access to a traditional healer, the healer may have been able to re-establish social harmony and avoid hospitalization.
After his release, according to Murray, God told him to gather great bundles of his script and deliver them to Dr. William Rawlings, his medical doctor in nearby Sandersville, Georgia. Rawlings stated that “towards the end when [Murray] had cancer and wasn’t doing well, he furiously wrote in his spirit script…It was like he had to complete this work before he died.”[xvi] Murray did as God requested and took his script to Dr. Rawlings with a message from God, “you will know what to do with these.” Rawlings did not know what to do with them and simply stowed them away in his closets. Though admittedly Rawlings tried and tried to discern some message from Murray’s script, he was never able to decipher even a single word.[xvii] However, he introduced Murray’s script to Professor Andy Nasisse at the University of Georgia-Athens. From there, it was introduced to the academic and art worlds, both locally and worldwide.
The Western medical point of view was illustrated when Murray was institutionalized because his community and/or family believed him mentally ill. His experiences now must be examined from an African mental health point of view. One African mental health point of view has been given by Dr. Malidoma Patrice Somé, a Western-educated doctor, born in 1956 and currently living in Oakland, California.[xviii] Somé is an initiated, gifted diviner and medicine man and holds three master’s degrees and two doctorates from the Sorbonne and Brandeis University. He is an author and initiated elder of the Dagara people of Burkina Faso. Somé and Stephanie Marohn, co-authors of What a Shaman Sees in A Mental Hospital, explain the difference between the Western and African (Dagara) treatments of mental illness. They wrote: “When energies from the spiritual world emerge in a Western psyche, that individual is completely unequipped to integrate them or even recognize what is happening. Without the proper context for and assistance in dealing with the breakthrough from another level of reality, for all practical purposes, the person is insane. Heavy dosing with anti-psychotic drugs compounds the problem and prevents the integration that could lead to soul development and growth in the individual who has received these energies.”[xix] Murray was medicated for a short period of time, but it did not appear to affect his calling.
According to Somé and Marohn, “In the Dagara tradition, the community helps the person reconcile the energies of both worlds.”[xx] That person is able then to serve as a bridge between the worlds and help the living with information and healing they need. Thus, the crisis ends with the birth of another healer.[xxi]
Murray seemed to accept the request of his God to use him as a way for the Holy Spirit to write or ‘speak.’ However, his family and community did not and he was institutionalized. Had Murray been in an African Dagara village, his experience may have been entirely different. He may have been aided by his family and community, therefore allowing the spirit to use him to bridge communication between the two worlds. Murray may have easily experienced what Somé called, “the birth of another healer.”[xxii]
Dreams and visions, and socially unusual or nonconformist behavior were present in Murray. Judith McWillie, author, artist, and retired art professor from the University of Georgia-Athens, described a time she went to visit Murray:
He was having a dream. Whatever it was, it was a nightmare. He was saying, “Oh Lord, oh Lord,” and tossing and turning...He look[ed] like he [was] having a really bad dream…He was talking about the evil people who were dry-tongued. But he was definitely asleep. Then he woke up…He just seemed like somebody who had an open pipeline to the other side.[xxiii]
Murray readily explained his visions or dreams, unlike the odd, unexplainable dream a common person might have. Murray knew the complete messages imparted to him through his visions and dreams. He did not question the information in his dreams; they were God’s word.
Author George Ndege adds, within his look at African health and disease[xxiv], “the etiology and symptomology of disease is rarely, if ever, characterized as simply the result of a malfunctioning organ or bodily lesion, whether spontaneous or initiated by some physical cause. Instead, disease is … a rupture of life’s harmony.”[xxv],[xxvi] Even though Dr. Rawlings did his best, he could not fully fulfill the role of traditional healer. It is apparent that J.B. Murray had ‘a rupture of life’s harmony,’ possibly leading to the physical disease of his body (prostate cancer), and to his eventual death.
An African comparison with Murray is Serigne Bousso, born in 1960 in Senegal, who shares very similar experiences regarding the acquisition of his protective and healing abilities. Rather than African American, Bousso is Wolof[xxvii] and Pulaar[xxviii], and is associated with the Islamic Murid[xxix] brotherhood, Sufi branch. He currently lives in Touba, Senegal, and provides protection and healing to the underprivileged in his region, with additional clients throughout the world.
Unlike Murray, who was illiterate, Bousso is well-educated[xxx] and explained, “I used to work in Dakar. [This was] when I was interested in herbal and animal biology, chemistry, and microbiology.”[xxxi] In the late 1990s, having worked in the business sector for over 20 years, Bousso was making a good living and by all indications should have been happy.[xxxii]
From the time he was very young, Bousso had been encouraged by his father and other relatives to continue in his father’s footsteps.[xxxiii] “I belong to a long [line] of descendant[s] of erudite[xxxiv] of [Qur’anic] science from my father and 59 of his ancestors. The 59th is Imam Ali, cousin of the prophet Mohamed and husband of Fatima, the Mohamed’s daughter. So for us the [Qur’an] is a family affair,”[xxxv] explained Bousso. He delayed his acceptance of his inheritance[xxxvi] in lieu of education, worldly exploration, and the pursuit of happiness through success and monetary gains.[xxxvii] Each time he would see his father or a relative, they would remind him of his ‘true calling,’ ensuring it would remain in the forefront of his mind.[xxxviii]
Even after Bousso’s father passed away, he received periodic reminders of his calling. Bousso again delayed the calling and shortly thereafter required mental hospitalization.[xxxix] He recalls his doctor stating ‘you will never cure this in a hospital, go find something else.’ [xl] It would take another 15 years for Bousso to fulfill the requests of his father’s spirit.
Eventually, after healing an erudite’s wife with a recipe obtained in a dream, he decided to dedicate his life to healing and protecting the poverty-stricken in Touba.[xli]
Today, Bousso uses geo localization astronomy, astrology, microbiology, herbal biology, chemistry and dietetics to heal and protect. He learned how to use the trance from the Seereer culture, an interesting parallel with Murray’s use of trance during his script writing and reading. Bousso works with Lis-tiz-ar, a set of verses and names of Allah you use before sleeping and the information needed will come as a vision or dream. This is also known as divination by dreams.[xlii]
Murray’s communications with God came in the form of visions and dreams, and he could only understand the script when he viewed it through water. In addition, he constantly recited verses from the Bible, with the Lord’s Prayer being one of his favorite recitations, after which he would often receive information in vivid dreams.[xliii] This parallels Bousso’s use of Lis-tiz-ar, resulting in visions or dream divination.[xliv]
In each piece he created, Murray’s intention was to give warning to those who were not living their lives the way his God intended, to give protection to others and himself by imbuing his work with his God’s power, and to relay important messages from his God to the people on earth. Murray’s intention was not to be an artist; his intention was to be a healer and protector.
In addition, Murray sought protection and healing for himself through figurative works of art he imbued with the power of the written word while asking for God’s protection and healing. An example of this is seen here in an untitled early work, in which Murray showed concern with the harm that had come to his body once he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1984. Extensive markings included in the work, along with an enormous amount of script on the reverse side, are perhaps warnings about the dangers of prostate cancer and requests for protection from it. In this painting, the figures from the center out to the right, enveloped in red, represent invaded body parts, the genitals and perhaps bones. The picture is inundated with positive colors of white and blue. Murray fashioned a complex diagram of his negative condition and a method for bringing about its healing and/or additional protection.[xlv]
This piece can be compared with Bousso’s protective writings. In Murray’s painting, placed Xs or +s throughout his work imbue it with God’s power and help. In Bousso’s piece, he has prepared protective script with the instructions to dissolve the ink in a liter of water and rub a small amount of this water into the face and hands each morning for protection. It is interesting that Bousso employs water to deploy the effect of his script, just as Murray used water to understand the meaning of his script and pass that meaning along.
Bousso verified the authenticity of Murray’s protective script and spirit figures; “[This] is the manifestation of God’s will. You don’t even have to have any doubt, he did not learn it from anyone. He was just chosen to fix some problems. So he is in the right, in the truth.”[xlvi] Regarding the use of script, Bousso states, “If there is script, its appearance doesn’t matter.”[xlvii] For Bousso, it would be the Arabic alphabet. For Licia Clifton-James, it would be the English alphabet. For Murray, it was his own script. Theoretically, the form does not matter because the Supreme Being, whether Allah or God, or whomever, knows all and will know the writing and its intention.[xlviii]
In conclusion, J.B. Murray had a vision and dreams later in life regarding the protective and healing work he was intended to accomplish. Serigne Bousso was reminded of his gift during mid-life through visions and dreams of his deceased father. Many indigenous religions throughout Africa include vision or dream divination to receive advice and assistance from the ancestors and gods.[xlix] Given that Murray was of African descent, this is the case regarding his ability to connect to the spirit world and/or God through visions and dreams.
Genetic memory has been in the news since around 1910 when Carl Jung discussed “collective unconscious.” Darold Treffert wrote for the Scientific American, in 2015:
To explain the savant, who has innate access to the vast syntax and rules of art, mathematics, music and even language, in the absence of any formal training and in the presence of major disability, “genetic memory,” it seems to me, must exist along with the more commonly recognized…memory circuits.[l]
I purport that genetic memory is not limited to the savant, but has been, and still is, inherent in the common person throughout history and today. Additionally, I go further to say that J.B. Murray used his genetic memories and callings by the spiritual realm to create works of protection and healing, just as Serigne Bousso is using his present-day memories and genetic memories, with help from the spiritual realm, to finally fulfill his position as a protector and healer in Senegal.
Licia Clifton-James, PhD, received her doctorate from the University of Missouri-Kansas City 2016. She is currently an Adjunct Professor at Metropolitan Community Colleges-Kansas City, where she teaches Global Arts. She previously served as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where she taught Art History of African Cultures and the African Diaspora, as well as Mesoamerican and Native American Art History. In coordination with the Pan-American Association of Kansas City, of which she is Vice-President, she was curator of an exhibition entitled Art of the Americas, held at the Belger Arts Center in April 2016, which examined art from 29 countries of the Americas.
Maude Southwell Wahlman received a BA in Art from Colorado College, an MA in Anthropology from Northwestern University, and a PhD in Art History from Yale University. She began her teaching career at the University of Mississippi, before becoming Chair of the Art Department at the University of Central Florida, and enjoyed a year as a Resident Research Scholar at the W.E.B. DuBois Center for Research on Black Culture at Harvard. She later became the Dorothy and Dale Thompson/Missouri Endowed Professor of Global Arts at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
J.B. Murray and the Scripts and Spirit Forms of Africa: Making the Connections is available now in Hardback at a 25% discount, Enter code PROMO25 at checkout to redeem.
[i] “Traditional medicine has a long history. It is the sum total of the knowledge, skill, and practices based on the theories, beliefs, and experiences indigenous to different cultures, whether explicable or not, used in the maintenance of health as well as in the prevention, diagnosis, improvement or treatment of physical and mental illness.” http://www.who.int/traditional-complementary-integrative-medicine/about/en/ March 23, 2018.
[ii] World Health Organization (WHO)—Global Traditional Medicine 2009-01-16 (Rev. 2014-02-05).
[iii] Elialilia Okello and Seggane Musisi. Chapter 10: “The Role of Traditional Healers in Mental Health Care in Africa,” from The Culture of Mental Illness and Psychiatric Practice in Africa, eds. Emmanuel Akyeampong, Allan G. Hill, Arthur Kleinman. Indiana University Press: Bloomington, 2015. 250.
[iv] Savannah Unit of the Georgia Writer’s Project, Drums and Shadows, 158-170.
[v] Smithsonian American Art Museum, Untitled, c. 1978-1988, J.B. Murray, Museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment 2014.4.4.
[vi] The Art Institute of Chicago: 70–96. doi:10.2307/20205546. African and Amerindian Purchase Endowment, 2000.326.
[vii] Kathleen Bickford Berzock. “Talismanic Textile” (2007) in “Transformation.” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, 33(1), 70–96. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.proxy.library.umkc.edu/stable/20205546.
[viii] Judith McWillie. J. B. Murray: Writing in Unknown Tongues: Reading through the Water, Film by Judith McWillie, Produced by Judith McWillie, Cinematographer: Judith McWillie, Editing: Judith McWillie, Copyright: 1986, Judith McWillie, 09 minutes, Color, Original format: VHS, 1986. http://www.folkstreams.net/film,219.
[ix] Smithsonian American Art Museum, Untitled, c. 1978-1988, J.B. Murray, Museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment 2014.4.4.
[x] Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South, Volume One: Once That River Starts to Flow, edited by Paul Arnett, William Arnett, Maude Southwell Wahlman, Ph.D., and Theophus Smith, 2000, 480.
[xi] “Genetic memory, simply put, is complex abilities and actual sophisticated knowledge inherited along with other more typical and commonly accepted physical and behavioral characteristics. In savants the music, art or mathematical “chip” comes factory installed.” From “Genetic Memory: How We Know Things We Never Learned,” in Scientific American, by Darold Treffert, Guest Blog, on January 28, 2015. http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/genetic-memory-how-we-know-things-we-never-learned1/.
[xii] Padgelek’s interview with Pinkston July 20, 1993.
[xiv] Padgelek, In the Hand of the Holy Spirit. 12.
[xviii] Malidoma Patrice Somé holds three Master's degrees and two doctorates from the Sorbonne and Brandeis University, according to David Chester (2008). Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature. A&C Black. pp. 1581–1582. ISBN 978-1847062734. Retrieved 31 May 2015.
[xix] Marohn with Somé.
[xxiii] Mary Padgelek. Transcribed taped interview with Judith McWillie, Athens, Georgia, Sept. 23, 1995.
[xxiv] C.M. Good. “A Comparison of Rural and Urban Ethnomedicine among the Kamba in Kenya.” In Traditional Health Care Delivery in Contemporary Africa, eds. P.R. Ulin, M.H. Segall, and C.M. Good. Syracuse, NY: Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs Syracuse University Press. 1980, 13-56.
[xxv] C.M. Good. “A Comparison of Rural and Urban Ethnomedicine among the Kamba in Kenya.” In Traditional Health Care Delivery in Contemporary Africa, eds. P.R. Ulin, M.H. Segall, and C.M. Good. Syracuse, NY: Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs Syracuse University Press. 1980, 13-56.
[xxvi] George Ndege. 2001. Health, State, and Society in Kenya. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press. 2001.
[xxvii] Wolof: 1) A member of a people living in Senegal and Gambia. 2) The Niger-Congo language of the Wolof. From Oxford Dictionaries at http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/wolof. April 5, 2016.
[xxviii] Pulaar has the status of a national language in such countries as Senegal, Guinea, Mali, etc. Pulaar culture centers on the family and places a heavy emphasis on family ties. The individual is part and parcel of the family, which is strongly tied to the community. The individual is defined from within his/her family and community, each of which has a very strong influence upon him/her. From the National African Language Resource Center (NALRC), University of Wisconsin-Madison, at http://www.nalrc.indiana.edu/brochures/pulaar.pdf. April 5, 2016.
[xxix] “Mouride is from the Arabic term Murid, referring to a disciple, follower, or “one who desires, (Ernst 1997, 124); Mouride is the French spelling and refers specifically to the Sufi movement centered on the life and lessons of Amadou Bamba.” From A Saint in the City: Sufi Arts of Urban Senegal, by Allen F. Roberts and Mary Nooter Roberts. UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, Los Angeles, 2003. 247.
[xxx] Serigne Bousso. Bousso was well-educated at Cheikh Anta Diop University, School of Library, Archives, and Documentation, with additional training at: the Centre Règional Africain de Technologie (CRAT), in Dakar; Kenyan Industrial Development Research Institute (KIRDI), in Nairobi; and, Ecole Internationale de Bordeaux, in France. Biographical information provided to Licia Clifton-James through translator, Waly Faye, Director of the West African Research Center, Dakar, Senegal. Received via email September 27, 2015.
[xxxi] Clifton-James. Interview of Serigne Bousso by Licia Clifton-James in his residence in Touba, Senegal, March 26, 2016.
[xxxiv] Erudite: “having or containing a lot of knowledge that is known by very few people.” From the Cambridge Dictionaries Online at http://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/erudite, viewed 3/22/2016.
[xxxv] Clifton-James, March 26, 2016.
[xxxvii] Clifton-James/Faye conversation, June 9, 2015.
[xxxix] Clifton-James, March 26, 2016.
[xl] Clifton-James, March 26, 2016.
[xli] Bousso, Biographical information translated and sent via email on Sept. 27, 2015.
[xlii] “Listixar Dream divination. From the Arabic istikhara.” From glossary of “The Emergence of the Present A Phenomenological Study of Divination, Time, and the Subject in Senegal and Gambia,” Dissertation by Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Faculteit Psychologie en Pedagogische Wetenschappen, Departement Sociale en Culturele Antropologie, 2005. 232.
[xliii] Transcript of taped interview with Mary Padgelek near Sanderville, Georgia, May 1993.
[xliv] Bousso, Biographical information, Sept. 27, 2015.
[xlv] William Arnett, Paul Arnett, Maude Southwell Wahlman, and Theophus Smith, Eds.. Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South, Volume Two: Once That River Starts to Flow, (Atlanta, GA: Tinwood Books, 2000), 478.
[xlvi] Interview of Serigne Bousso by Licia Clifton-James in his residence in Touba, Senegal, March 26, 2016.
[xlviii] Interview of Serigne Bousso by Licia Clifton-James in his residence in Touba, Senegal, March 26, 2016.
[xlix] John S. Mbiti. Introduction to African Religion: Second Edition. Waveland Press: Illinois, 2015 (1975). 78 and 155.
[l] Darold Treffert, “Genetic Memory: How We Know Things We Never Learned” in a Guest Blog for Scientific American, Jan. 28, 2018. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/genetic-memory-how-we-know-things-we-never-learned/.