Eve, the Serpent, and Slavery


The most interested piece of artwork I saw at the Ackland Art Museum was Eve and the Serpent by Rose Piper. This painting depicts the version of the biblical creation story that is told through the slave spiritual “Dem Bones (Gonna Rise Again).” Besides the painting’s title and the author’s choice to represent Eve as an African American, the only distinctive feature of this painting that nods to the song is the serpent’s winking eye.

In many adaptations of the creation story, Eve is often portrayed as intentionally disobedient or naïve and child-like. However, in this painting, Eve is dignified. Her posture is that of a confident woman, and even the animals are drawn to her. In this adaptation, she also seems more curious in the serpent than in the fruit. This painting depicts the moments just before Eve takes the forbidden fruit and while the vivid colors, flowers, and friendly animals give the painting a happy, fairytale feel, the ominous dark clouds in the top, left corner foreshadow the story’s ending.

The slave spiritual that this painting originates from was one of many that were often sung by slaves as they worked the cotton fields. The lyrics tell the story of Adam and Eve but the last lines to the song are particularly interesting: “So Adam took a pick and then took a plow, And that’s why we’re workin’ now!” Not only did this song help African Americans pass time during long hours of manual labor, it helped them share religious stories and make sense of the senseless oppression they were experiencing. Piper’s choice to link this spiritual to her painting draws deeper meaning into her work. Not only is she illustrating the creation story, but she is also representing all the men, women, and children who sang those words during one of the darkest times in US history.