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Museum celebrates church hats and the women who wear them

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Photographs of women in church hats by Walter Griffin.
Photographs of women in church hats by Walter Griffin hang inside the Minnesota African American Heritage Museum and Gallery in Minneapolis on Friday, Dec. 21, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

On the few occasions her family went to church, Tina Burnside was enthralled by the sight of women wearing over-the-top, colorful and sometimes sequined hats.

"I just remember, particularly on Easter Sunday, you have the women there in the beautiful hats, and the matching outfit, and the purse and the shoes," Burnside said. "It's just a very beautiful, colorful expression of one's self."

Burnside now is the main curator at the Minnesota African American Heritage Museum and Gallery, which she co-founded this year. And she's turned her childhood admiration for church hats into an art exhibit. 

Portraits and paintings of black women sporting extravagant headwear debuted at the museum in November and will be on display until the end of January. The "Grace" exhibit pays homage to the history of the fancy hats and features works from local artist Beverly Hammond and photographer Walter Griffin. 

As a tradition deeply rooted in the African-American community, wearing flamboyant hats to church has both spiritual and cultural significance that dates back to slavery. After being stripped of their heritage, customs and traditions and forced to assimilate into white American culture, slaves were given just one day to express their identity, Burnside said. So on Sunday, their day of worship, women went to church with hats made from straw.

Griffin, a Chicago native, started taking family photos when he was 3. Today his prints have been featured in more than 150 showings across the country, including the Guthrie Theater, the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, and the Studio Museum of Harlem in New York. 

"I just had a passion for it," Griffin says about the beginnings of his career. "I was fortunate enough to do a little workshop with Gordon Parks, a very famous photographer at the time, which had a profound effect on me."

As Griffin got older, photography would become less of a hobby and more of a job he was passionate about. "I had a responsibility to share the things that I see that a lot of people might not have the opportunity to see," Griffin said. 

One object Griffin enjoyed photographing the most was hats. When he was 8, his father would take him to the house of a friend whose mother was a milliner — a hat-maker — and Griffin would watch her create a hat from scratch. 

A painting depicting a woman in a church hat by Beverly Hammond.
A painting depicting a woman in a church hat by Beverly Hammond hangs in the Minnesota African American Heritage Museum and Gallery in Minneapolis.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"I became almost mesmerized of seeing someone create," he said. "As I got older, I really began to appreciate the craft."

Griffin said from that day on, every time he saw someone wearing a exceptional hat, he would stop to compliment them.  

"I began to photograph different situations in churches, high fashion, just hats. I would see people in hats. It was like I was obsessed and I would have to say something to them," Griffin said. "I would talk to them about the process, I would talk to them about the material. I was just really into hats. I got a reputation for being known as the hat photographer."

Griffin said some women would also request he take portraits of them in their church hats. Many of those portraits are featured in the "Grace" exhibit. 

Real-life people and situations would inspire the majority of artist Hammond's featured work as well. A visual artist, dancer, songwriter and recording artist, creativity runs through Hammond's blood. 

Hammond started painting for relaxation around 12 years ago and found that she most liked painting hats. "I love colors, and I love seeing what's going to come out on the canvas." 

Like Burnside, Hammond draws inspiration from the women she saw in churches during her childhood.

"You would see a lot of hats in the black church — all kinds of hats," Hammond said. "The hat matched the suit that matched the shoes that matched the pocketbook that matched the jewelry." 

Hammond said she sold her first hat painting earlier this year, and the designs have kept flowing. "None of them look the same," she said. "It's like they take on their own personality, and I begin to outline and sketch. It seems like the colors come to me and it's like dancing on the canvas."

A church hat sits on a mannequin's head.
A church hat sits on a mannequin's head inside the Minnesota African American Heritage Museum and Gallery.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Hammond says the hats she paints are reminiscent of the headwraps donned by young girls and women she observed while traveling through Kenya. A hat, she said, completes a woman's outfit. 

"Hats have always been a complementary part of a woman's attire," Hammond said. "We really do get dressed from head to toe."

The Minnesota African American Heritage Museum opened in September. The 1,100-square-foot gallery is housed inside the new headquarters of the THOR construction companies on Penn and Plymouth avenues in north Minneapolis. 

Burnside hopes visitors to the "Grace" exhibit will come away with a deeper understanding of the importance of church hats. 

"I think people will have an appreciation for the beauty, the grace, and the tradition of the hat — and of African-American women," she said.