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

Ernest Withers, I am a Man: Sanitation Workers Demonstration in front of Clayborn Temple in Memphis Tennessee, 1968
I have been thinking about the emerging shape of the class at the graduate center in the time we have left, after a discussion with Naia. 

I think that perhaps the best way to take advantage of the time we have left is if those of you who have not had a chance to present anything in class, were to divide up the readings and the materials we have left and lead discussions on them in class.

This is our remaining schedule. We have refined our readings down to more precise units. Devoting our next two classes to Barbara Ransby's book about Ella Baker and Danielle McGuire's book.  We will spend May 5th, talking about our final writing projects--which will involve presentations from each of you, provided you are ready to do so.

These presentations will include Maribi Henriquez, who is registered with me for MALS thesis advisement, who has completed the writing of "La Feminista Nuyorquina" --Contextualizing the Latina Experience in the Space of Radical U.S. History: Dominican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban Presence in New York City."
Then we are making a field trip Thursday, May 15th to the Brooklyn Museum of Art to see the exhibition Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties (March 7-July 6) in the Robert E. Blum Gallery on the First Floor.
See the following link for directions to the museum on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. I use to live right around the corner and as I recall you can get there on the #2 train:
Our final session will be Friday, May 16th, at the same time as our regular class, 4:15-6:15, which is a university designated snow day. The plan right now is that this session may be devoted to the music of the civil rights movement, and a special presentation still being prepared by Rev. Lowell Coleman, from my CCNY class. Damelle may or may not participate since we plan to combine this with our farewell festivities. Perhaps we will adjourn to a local Korean Barbecue place, depending on how wealthy we are feeling.

I will also invite students from the other class to join us although it might be difficult for most of them.

To continue with discussion of the field trip to the Brooklyn Museum, you are free to come and go as you please. I will be at the museum, myself, from 1-6, and available to meet with you and guide you through the exhibit in two rounds. We will meet in the cafeteria the first time at 1 p.m. and the second time at 4:30.

There aren't a lot of women artists included in this show and it certainly has no feminist intentions that I can discern but it is the most inclusive exhibition of art and photography (in terms of racial, ethnic and gender diversity) from the the 60s that I have ever seen. I believe it may be indicating a future direction worth pursuing in art museums. Since it is at the Brooklyn Museum, which is located in a black neighborhood, who knows if it will indicate a trend? But this is the museum of choice of JayZ who is known to be a collector of art now.

There are little plans at present for this exhibition to travel but there is still time.

Just for your reference, there are 12 women artists in the show (8 of whom are African American, 2 Latina and 1 Japanese):

1. Faith Ringgold(my Mom)--Study Now (1964), and Flag for the Moon: Die Nigger (1967), oil on canvas;
2. Virginia Jaramillo (Mexican American), Divide (1964), mixed media on canvas;
3. Barbara Chase-Riboud, Monument to Malcolm X No. 2 (1969), Black Bronze and Wool, Newark Museum Collection;
4. Marisol Escobar, LBJ (1967), pain and pencil on wood, Collection of Museum of Modern Art;
5. Emma Amos, Three Figures (1966), oil on canvas;
6. Betye Saar, Whitey's Way (1970), Assemblage in box and Jim Crow Really Dead? (1972), Mixed Media Assemblage;
7. Elizabeth Catlett, Homage to My Young Black Sisters (1968), Cedar Sculpture and Negro es Bello II (1969), Silkscreen, Collection of Hampton University Museum.
8. Nancy Spero, Child in Sky/Victim in River (1966), Gouache,
9. Jae Jarrell, Urban Wall Suit (c. 1969) Printed Silk, and Ebony Family (1968) Cotton Velvet;
10. Yoko Ono, Voice Piece for Soprano (1961), print on paper;
11. Barbara Jones-Hogu, Unite (1971), silkscreen and Nation Time (1970), Silkscreen;
12. Pauline Boty, Countdown to Violence (1964), oil on canvas;
13. May Stevens (1970) Big Daddy Paper Doll, Acrylic on Canvas and Honor Roll (1963), oil on canvas.
My rough count of men in the exhibit (there isn't any checklist and I suspect that everything in the catalogue is not actually in the exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum) is about 57 including many, many very well known artists, whom I will leave to your discovery and our discussions at the museum.

The 60s and the 70s were a time of great systematic political activism among artists particularly in New York, which is when I met most of the women included here by the side of my Mom, who was a very militant activist in the art world then.

To look at this exhibition and the catalogue that accompanies it makes me proud to see that the activism of artists is finally being recognized. Even in those cases in which the work, itself, might be viewed as without political content, it is interesting to see that the artists, themselves, often encoded messages of protest against racism and in support of the Civil Rights Movement or Black Power within their work. These works are included alongside more overtly political works such as those of my mother's. This exhibition brings all of these works to the fore alongside photographic work, which helps to connect it all to the events of the movement, itself.  Without such clarifications, in which culture is linked to the political context in which it occurs, history becomes inscrutable and incomprehensible to anyone who hasn't lived it. This is why I made so many mistakes in writing Black Macho. Even for me, having lived through it, events went by in a blur, and even the culture that was being produced in and around my own house was ultimately as inscrutable as if I had been born in Kansas. I had to learn. I had to teach myself. I had to study. And I was there.
Okay maybe its a bit of a stretch to put Robert Rauchenberg, Andy Warhol, Elizabeth Catlett and the Africobra Collective Artists who did street murals in Chicago together, but I saw and knew them all. Moreover, it seems to me an art exhibition is forced to resort to a kind of shorthand for the times that produced them.
Also at the Brooklyn Museum, of potential interest is a longterm installation in the 5th Floor Lobby: Revolution: Works from the Black Arts Movement, a collection of 44 works from Africobra; also Elizabeth Sackler Center for Feminist Art on the 4th floor, as well as a vast array of African, Asian and Native American art all over the building. It's a wonderfully walkable museum still.
The photographs are great although they don't really begin to describe the role of photography in the Civil Rights Movement.
You can be helped in this endeavor by following this link to an online exhibition by Maurice Berger called For All the World To See:, which traces the role of visual images in racial thought from the 50s through the 70s. I served as a consultant for this exhibition and wrote many of the texts for the online film festival that was included. That was fun.
Also via Maurice Berger, his lens.blog posts for the New York Times located at
which includes columns on Leonard Freed's photos of the March on Washington, Gordon Parks, James Kareles, as well as photos of Malcolm X, who we should recall was murdered in 1965, and as such belongs more to the Civil Rights Movement than the Black Power Movement (the Black Panthers) and Black Cultural Nationalism (Amiri Baraka), although I don't always distinguish the three since they are all branches of the same tree of the struggle over racial inequality.

You may view the exhibition and visit the museum in any sequence you wish. Since we are going on a Thursday, which is a late night in which the museum is open until 10 and the admittance fee is pay what you wish, you have leeway. By the way, the fee is always pay what you wish.
What we have left are readings of McGuire
​, chapters 1-4​
and Baker
​, chapters 7-11.​
  Not sure who hasn't yet presented but you know who you are.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

For the record, Moneta Sleet is a male.