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August 27. 2014 8:16PM

Landmark Legislation

Exhibit serves as 'Witness' to Civil Rights Movement

Barkley L. Hendricks titled his 1969 oil and gold leaf piece "Lawdy Mama." 

As the struggle for racial equality in the 1960s raged in political forums, artists were mounting their own insurgency in hopes their works could help change the way people perceived the world around them.

This 1969 piece by Jeff Donaldson is titled "Wives of Shango." 

Fifty years ago, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. The bill then came before the U.S. Senate, survived a 54-day filibuster, and was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Marking that journey, is “Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties,” an exhibit of more than 100 works by 66 artists who merged creative expression with political activism. The exhibition, organized by the Brooklyn Museum, explores how painting, sculpture, graphic art and photography not only reflected the political and social turmoil of the era but also helped to influence its direction. “Witness” will be on view at the Hood from Saturday through Dec. 14, and will be accompanied by lectures and other museum programming and a smartphone-based audio tour.

TRYING TIMES: Jacob Lawrence’s 1962 piece “Soldiers and Students” is part of an exhibit opening Saturday at Hanover’s Hood Museum of Art. More than 100 works reflect how artists merged creative expression with political activism, both mirroring and influencing the course of the Civil Rights Movement, curators said. 

“Visitors will be able to explore ... the many ways that people make a difference to themselves, their communities and the world by taking action,” said Michael Taylor, director of the Hood Museum of Art.

No clear and contemporary road map existed for political activism in the arts at the outset of the 1960s, curators said. The established artists of the Cold War generation— primarily abstractionists who saw their work as profoundly subjective and self-contained — rejected the validity of art that was socially or politically activist. A significant number of artists, driven by their inseparable convictions, nevertheless tapped a wide array of aesthetic approaches to produce art in support of the cause of racial equality.

The works on view in “Witness” encompass gestural abstraction, pop aesthetics, collage, assemblage, photography, minimalism and collaborative printmaking.

“They generated a multiplicity of dialogues about systemic racism and the disenfranchisement of African Americans, and they visualized affirmations of full citizenship, black identity, empowerment and communal creativity,” curators said.

Highlights of the showing include Jacob Lawrence’s response to the controversy surrounding school desegregation in the South with his “Soldiers and Students,” one of several compositions by the artist to focus on demonstrations and violence; Barkley Hendricks’s “Lawdy Mama,” which confers the awe and reverence once accorded Christian altarpieces on the figure of a woman crowned with a large, halo-like afro, and AfriCOBRA co-founder Jae Jarrell’s “Urban Wall Suit,” a fabric suit inspired by activist murals and urban graffiti that anticipates the confluence of fashion and art.

Photographers represented in the exhibition, including Richard Avedon, Bruce Davidson, Roy DeCarava, Gordon Parks, and Moneta Sleet Jr., captured the events of the civil rights movement as both documentarians and activists, often altering public opinion with their images in newspapers and magazines such as Ebony and Life.

Among the other artists featured in the exhibition are Norman Rockwell, Charles White, Faith Ringgold, May Stevens, James Rosenquist, Barbara Chase-Riboud, Elizabeth Catlett, Mark di Suvero, Sam Gilliam, Leon Polk Smith, Mel Edwards, Virginia Jaramillo, Philip Guston, David Hammons, Betye Saar and Jeff Donaldson.

Also represented in the exhibition are works by Charles Alston, Merton Simpson, Norman Lewis and Romare Bearden, all members of Spiral, a group of New York artists who collectively explored how their practices could engage with the struggle for civil rights.

In a related program on Oct. 15 at the gallery’s auditorium, activist-artists Jae Jarrell and Wadsworth Jarrell will chat with Rebecca Zorach, professor of art history at the University of Chicago and specialist on the artist collective AfriCOBRA.

On Oct. 24 and 25, a lecture, reception and exhibition tour are planned. Curators are Teresa A. Carbone, Andrew W. Mellon (curator of American Art, Brooklyn Museum) and Kellie Jones, associate professor in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University.

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