Called To Witness
The Visual Testimony of Artists in an Epic Story
The romance of Western civilization emerged from the on-going, retelling of great stories of artistic, social, intellectual and political upheaval — the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the industrial revolution, the scientific revolutions of Darwin and Freud and the cultural revolutions of modernism in the arts. People of color were the unheralded players — involved but invisible — in many chapters of this great narrative.
Now, two and one-half centuries in the making, the great romance of American civilization is emerging as a brilliantly multicultural story with one of its most dramatic chapters being the 1960s civil rights struggle.
Like all epic stories, the Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, March 7–July 6, 2014, comprises a magnificent narrative of courage, love, tension and heartbreak.
Some of the artists called by conscience to witness the modern American freedom struggle represent the optimism of the “black and white together” period of the early movement when Lorraine Hansberry, Nina Simone, John Lewis and others clasped hands and sang at the Highlander Folk School, a center that trained white and black activists in the south. Some reflect the wrenching period when black activists advised white comrades to go edify their own communities, closed ranks and raised the now-iconic fist of black power.
This is the broad spectrum of civil rights era experience that is covered in 103 works of painting, sculpture, graphics and photography by 66 black and white artists in the Witness show.
An interracial vanguard of artists – painters, other visual artists, writers, musicians and actors — joined political activists in the early movement and “I Have A Dream” idealism courses through some of the Witness show.
The white artists were not just hip young progressives. In his Problem We All Live With painting, Norman Rockwell departed from his sentimental visual homilies of “All-American” mom and apple pie life to depict a six-year black girl subjected to the wrath of racist white women as she was escorted by US marshals to a previously all-white, New Orleans school in 1960.
The Rockwell painting in the Witness show is the less well-known New Kids in the Neighborhood. In this painting, one charming element of Rockwell’s style is the sensitive treatment of the African character of the black children’s features. White illustrators of his generation often rendered black features in a more ham-fisted way.
Among other white artists stirred by the movement was Robert Indiana who had manufactured his own brand of pop art but, unlike most other pop artists, fused the style with blunt, visual and verbal condemnation of racism.
The symbolic tipping point on the fulcrum between the movement’s promise and pain came with Martin Luther King’s assassination on April 4, 1968.
Artist Joe Overstreet was working on sets for a Broadway play when Dick Gregory came in to report that King had been shot. Overstreet left to go uptown. By the time he reached 125th Street, people were very upset, gathering and milling around. A number of stores had already been looted, including the liquor stores.
When Overstreet went back downtown, he sat for a long time in Tompkins Square Park near the Temperance Fountain that was embossed with the statement, “Give them water rather than alcohol.” The fountain has four sides, each with a word: Faith, Hope, Temperance and Charity.
Overstreet reflected upon the fountain’s architectural shape and went home with an idea for a memorial painting for King.
The next morning, he developed symbolic forms for justice, peace, hope and faith ideas from speeches by King and Adam Clayton Powell. These ideas had been translated into slogans of that time, such as King’s “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and Powell’s “Keep the Faith.”
Overstreet’s Justice, Faith, Hope and Peace painting also reflects on the shifting grounds between Civil Rights Movement and what became known as the struggle for “black power.” Some panels are right side up and some are upside down, symbolizing the uncertainty of that pivotal moment.
Sam Gilliam responded to the King assassination with the terrible beauty of Red April.
Nina Simone’s 1964 “Mississippi Goddam” recording, was a sign of early shifting between the optimism of integration and the coming militancy of black nationalism. A video of Simone performing this song is a part of the Witness exhibition. She was responding to the murders of Medgar Evers and the four girls in the Birmingham church bombing.
By the pivotal year, 1968, the cultural wing of the movement had lost Lorraine Hansberry who had died age 34 of pancreatic cancer and John Coltrane dead at 40 from liver cancer. In contributing trailblazing testimony to the formative period of the movement, both visionary artists, driven by genius, pulled out all the stops and drank a lot.
Also gone was Bob Thompson, a heroin user, dead at 28 in 1966. Homage to Nina Simone, Bob Thompson’s painting in Witness resulted from his spending time with a group that included Nina in Provincetown in the summer of ’65. Simone has been identified as the figure with the towering hairstyle to the left of the guitar playing figure. A pioneer of natural hair styles, Nina’s towering coif in this painting is similar to one on the cover photo of her 1967 “Silk and Soul” album.
“Hey Lordy mama, tell me what you gonna do?” asked Nina Simone in "Blues for Mama" (a.k.a. "Hey, Lawdy Mama"), a song that she wrote with Abby Lincoln. Barkley Hendricks' appropriation of the phrase for the title of his painting that's in the show, seems to be one of awestruck praise, not blues. Hendricks’ Lawdy Mama looks like a conflation of the cafe-au-lait-skinned, bubble-'froed Kathleen Cleaver and Angela Davis.
If “the tell it like it is” witnessing of Nina Simone’s compositions form a powerful soundtrack to the Movement, her “Young, Gifted and Black,” drawn from a remark by her friend, Lorraine Hansberry, with a single word change, would be a fitting score for another exhibition currently at the Brooklyn Museum. “To Be Young, Gifted and Gay” describes Twice Militant: Lorraine Hansberry's Letters to The Ladder, on view in the Herstory Gallery of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum. These letters were written by Hansberry, as a closeted "heterosexually married lesbian," to the Ladder, the first, nationally-circulated, lesbian magazine.
During the mid to late 1960s, the juggernaut civil rights movement was spinning off other movements in all directions — the black arts movement, the peace movement, gay rights and migrant workers movements and second wave feminism which spun off the Women’s Caucus for Art and other women’s art collectives.
Emma Amos’ 1966 painting Three Figures portends her interest in the feminist issues in general and issues of black feminine beauty that would define some of her later work. The two nude white women and the partially clothed black woman (who may or may not be wearing black briefs) can be viewed within the context of art historian Lisa Farrington’s observations about Emma Amos’ regard of the female nude and black feminine beauty. In a 2007 IRAAA article, Farrington wrote:
Over the past few years, Amos has turned her attention to the subject of the cultural constructions of beauty…. The desirability of the black female body is central to the theme and import of this work. Western ambivalence toward the black woman and her beauty has made her nude image almost invisible in the Western high art genre of the Nude — a realm reserved almost exclusively for flowing-haired, porcelain-skinned beauties of European descent. (“Emma Amos: Bodies in Motion,” International Review of African American Art, v. 21, no. 2).
Amos’ gender politics were primed when, as the only female member of Spiral (a collective of black artists that met from 1963-1965 to discuss their roles as artists in the movement), she observed the men’s unwitting disparagement of women, such as when they referred to Elizabeth Catlett as “Charles White’s wife." By this time, the briefly-married Catlett and White had long separated and Catlett had become a formidable talent and fearless social commentator in her own right. Spiral artists Charles Alston, Merton Simpson, Norman Lewis and Romare Bearden also are represented in the Witness exhibition.
As a wing of the civil rights movement veered towards cultural nationalism, an entire school of “black art” emerged that included the genre of AfriCobra art.
AfriCobra is represented in Witness by AfriCobra co-founder Jeff Donaldson’s Wives of Shango, and Jae Jarrell’s Urban Wall Suit, a fabric suit inspired by activist murals and urban graffiti. Jae Jarell and her husband, Wadsworth Jarrell, also were part of the original AfriCobra collective in Chicago.
While some black artists left the larger movement to form the Black Arts Movement, others, such as Benny Andrews, maintained interracial alliances without compromising their commitment to the black struggle.
From a large, sharecropping family in Georgia, Andrews never forgot his humble roots and strongly empathized with impoverished people. The worn yet piercing eyes of Andrew’s Witness painting is a testament to his own life-long acts of witnessing and protest which included his Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, an organization that protested exhibition policies of the Metropolitan and Whitney Museums in the late 1960s.
Jacob Lawrence’s most well-known Civil Rights Movement statement is his Confrontation at the Bridge, a 125 edition silkscreen depicting the march from Selma Ala, that is in numerous private and public collections. The Witness exhibition adds to our understanding of Lawrence’s reaction to the movement through the inclusion of a lesser-known, one of a kind work – Lawrence’s 1962 Soldiers and Students. His deft handling of the water color medium and plentiful white space within and around the figures lends an airy lightness to the heavy scene.
A charming lightness also fills the ominous scene depicted by Phillip Guston in City Limits. The comic character of the KKK figures, the child-like cartoonish drawing style and pink palette evoke big smiles not dread, but Guston did take the terrorist group very seriously. A politically outspoken artist, he, himself, had been victimized by the Klan when they slashed his paintings.
Photographers in the exhibition, such as 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. The exhibition includes Bruce Davidson’s photographs of an Atlanta Ku Klux Klan rally and of the blood-spattered car in which Viola Liuzzo was murdered by Klan members while driving home a group of Selma-to-Montgomery marchers; Danny Lyon’s image of Bob Dylan playing his guitar before a group of SNCC workers outside their Greenwood, Mississippi, office; and Gordon Parks’s images of Muhammad Ali, Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver, and others.
Other artists in the exhibition are Charles White, Faith Ringgold, May Stevens, James Rosenquist, Barbara Chase-Riboud, Elizabeth Catlett, Mark di Suvero, Sam Gilliam, Raphael Montañez Ortiz, Mel Edwards, David Hammons, Betye Saar, Jack Whitten and the Los Angeles artists Noah Purifoy, founding director of the Watts Arts Center, and John T. Riddle Jr., who both salvaged materials from the 1965 Watts Rebellion to create assemblages.
The exhibition was organized by Teresa A. Carbone, Andrew W. Mellon Curator of American Art at the Brooklyn Museum, and Kellie Jones, associate professor in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University.
Through this exhibition and other projects and programs such as Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960–1980, a 2012-13 exhibition which she curated for the Hammer Museum, her “CIVIL /RIGHTS/ACT: Art and Activism in the 1960s” lecture at Columbia’s Center for Jazz Studies and related essays in her Eyeminded book, Kellie Jones has developed a core specialty in the history of the art of social change and cultural revolution of the 1960s and ‘70s. The elder daughter of prominent 1960s’ activist artists Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones) and Hettie Jones, she learned the history first hand as she was growing up in New York and visiting her father and his relatives in Newark in the late 1960s and 1970s.
Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties is accompanied by a large catalogue and travels to the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College (fall 2014) and the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin (spring 2015).
— Juliette Harris
1. The photograph shown above of civil rights activists at the Highlander Folk School was not in the Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties exhibition. It is reproduced here to set the scene for the article.
2. The following captions were presented above without the full gift details to fit into the caption space format for this article. Here are the full captions:
Jeff Donaldson (American, 1932–2004). Wives of Shango, 1969. Watercolor with mixed media on paper, 30 x 22 in. (76.2 x 55.9 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of R. M. Atwater, Anna Wolfrom Dove, Alice Fiebiger, Joseph Fiebiger, Belle Campbell Harriss, and Emma L. Hyde, by exchange; Designated Purchase Fund, Mary Smith Dorward Fund, Dick S. Ramsay Fund, and Carll H. de Silver Fund, 2012.80.13. © Jameela K. Donaldson
Jae Jarrell (American, born 1935). Urban Wall Suit, circa 1969. Dyed and printed silk with paint, 38 x 21 x 10 (96.5 x 53.3 x 25.4 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of R. M. Atwater, Anna Wolfrom Dove, Alice Fiebiger, Joseph Fiebiger, Belle Campbell Harriss, and Emma L. Hyde, by exchange; Designated Purchase Fund, Mary Smith Dorward Fund, Dick S. Ramsay Fund, and Carll H. de Silver Fund, 2012.80.16. © Jae Jarrell