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Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties at Brooklyn Museum

As someone born two decades after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, I received visual access to the civil-rights era predominantly through photographic documentation. Black-and-white photos in history books, documentary films, and microfilm of front-page newspaper stories shaped my understanding of the period, suggesting a more or less linear sequence of events.

David Hammons. The Door, 1969; wood, acrylic sheet, and pigment construction, 79 x 48 x 15 in. Courtesy of Collection of Friends, the Foundation of the California African American Museum, Los Angeles.

David Hammons. The Door, 1969; wood, acrylic sheet, and pigment construction, 79 x 48 x 15 in. Courtesy of Collection of Friends, the Foundation of the California African American Museum, Los Angeles.

Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties, now at the Brooklyn Museum, expands and complicates any such sense of linear history or progress. Featuring painting, photography, sculpture, and assemblage from the period, the exhibition provides an inclusive yet focused look at how artists addressed the racial injustice and societal upheaval of the decade. Some works are directly political, like David Hammons’ The Door, a door to an admissions office bearing the black ink imprint of a body pressed up against the glassa literalization of the barriers that African Americans faced in entering higher-education institutions. But there are also Minimalist, Pop Art, and Abstract Expressionist works present, delivering a more multifaceted view of how aesthetic strategy can speak to politics and communicate political emotion. Sam Gilliam’s Red April, a large, abstract painting swelling with aggressive pattern and fierce red paint splatter, was created in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The piece bubbles with emotion and violence, its aesthetic ambiguity a perfect match for an event so incomprehensible and disorienting.

The limitations of photojournalism, which undoubtedly produced the most widely circulated and historically cited images of the era, surfaces multiple times throughout the exhibition. The photojournalists who put themselves in danger to capture protest clashes and bombings of freedom buses were without doubt activists committed to showing the world the war zone that the United States had become.  However, the specific set of images selected and repeatedly circulated by the mainstream media amounts to a simplistic account of the times. In the words of Susan Sontag (which are emblazoned on one gallery wall), “to photograph is to frame, and to frame is to exclude.”

Sam Gilliam. Red April, 1970; acrylic on canvas, 110 x 160 in. Courtesy of the Iowa Museum of Art, Gift of the Longview Foundation.

Sam Gilliam. Red April, 1970; acrylic on canvas, 110 x 160 in. Courtesy of the Iowa Museum of Art, Gift of the Longview Foundation.

In his book, Seeing Through Race: A Reinterpretation of Civil Rights Photography, Martin Berger attests to these limitations. “With great consistency, white media outlets in the North published photographs throughout the 1960s that reduced the complex social dynamics of the civil-rights movement to easily digestible narratives, prominent among them white on black violence … Since the published images of racist bombers, policemen, and mobs have long been key to the identity of liberal whitesdemarcating what they are notmost whites most opposed to white-on-black violence retain a chilling interest in seeing these images reproduced.” [1] Berger’s incisive critique seems to have been internalized by the curators of Witness. Here, photographs of flaming KKK crosses and African American individuals being attacked by police dogs appear side by side with collage, painting, and sculpture pieces that may respond to the same events. Any of these works can claim validity as account or testament; photography no longer monopolizes the functions of visual truth-telling and objectivity.

Several works incorporate emblematic photographs of violence against African Americans into collage, which had become a compositional strategy for processing and coming to terms with such imagery (if such a thing is possible). In Jack Whitten’s Birmingham 1964, aluminum foil on canvas peels back to reveal a newspaper photo of an African American protestor being attacked by a police dog. The exposed photo is covered with a transparent nylon stocking, referencing W.E.B. Du Bois’ notion that African Americans are born with a veil that creates a double-consciousnessa “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of the world that looks on in amused contempt and pity”. [2] In a world marked by heinous white-on-black violence as well as the fetishization of the brutal imagery thereof, Whitten’s work reads as an open wound.

Jack Whitten. Birmingham 1964, 1964; aluminum foil, newsprint, stocking, and oil on plywood, 16 5/8 x 16 in. Courtesy of the artist and Alexander Gray Associates, New York.

Jack Whitten. Birmingham 1964, 1964; aluminum foil, newsprint, stocking, and oil on plywood; 16 5/8 x 16 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Alexander Gray Associates, New York.

Witness underscores the deep need for more complex and pluralistic visual accounts of the civil-rights era. Concluding with a timeline of civil-rights-related events, including the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin and the 2013 Supreme Court gutting of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Witness does the essential and painful work of revealing how an inadequate visual cultural record can come to mirror inadequate social reform. There can be no greater demonstration of the need for a more diverse and inclusive art-historical canon and for the elevation of art history and media literacy as tools of social justice.

Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties runs through July 16 at Brooklyn Museum.

[1] Martin Berger, Seeing Through Race: A Reinterpretation of Civil Rights Photography (University of California Press; Berkeley, CA, 2011), 6, 159. [2] W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (A.C. McClurg & Co.; Chicago, 1903).

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