Inside the Art of the Civil Rights Movement

By Jamilah King Apr 29, 2014

If you walk into the Brooklyn Museum’s new exhibit, "Witness: Arts and Civil Rights in the Sixties," one of the first pieces you’ll see is Charles W. White’s 1961 charcoal drawing called "Awaken from the Unknowing" (PDF). In it, a black woman sits before heaps of papers spread out before her while her head falls in fatigue along her shoulder. These days, it’s an image that evokes the romanticized stories of black women of the era, but in 1961 it represented the multifaceted struggle for equality in America. 

The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the era’s preeminent youth organizing outfit, put the image on the cover of its brochure announcing Freedom Schools. Aside from teaching African-American history in cities and towns throughout the South, the schools would eventually grow into Freedom Summer, the three months in 1964 when thousands of black and white college students registered Mississippi’s largely black electorate. The woman in White’s drawing could have been anyone: the crusading idealist going door-to-door to register disenfranchised voters or the student struggling to excel in substandard schools left untouched by Brown v. Board of Education. 

"Witness: Arts and Civil Rights in the Sixties" is an exhibit that marks the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. It’s a departure from the widely understood visuals of a period that’s remembered mostly for its jarring photographs of dogs and firehoses being set upon black protestors. More than anything, it’s a reminder of the continued struggle ahead in an era that’s seen the erosion of so many Civil Rights victories, from voting rights to school desegregation

I spoke with Teresa A. Carbone, one of the exhibit’s curators, in her office at the Brooklyn Museum about the painstaking task of digging up lesser known artifacts of Civil Rights history.

Tell me how the idea for this exhibit came together.

Two years ago I had a conversation with our director, Arnold Lehman, about doing something to observe the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. I had begun to sort of sense that there were going to be a lot of public observances and I started thinking about what had gone in the fine arts. He liked the idea and we then invited [co-curator]  Kellie Jones to join us because Kellie has very deep expertise in the work of black artists from the ’60s through the ’80s.  She’d already thought a lot about the artists practicing in the ’60s. Then we decided to cast a wide net to think about everybody who was working at the time: major artists, lesser known artists, artists we immediately associate with a consciousness about Civil Rights.

Who are some of those artists?

It was not a surprise that major activist-artists like David Hammons had relevant work.. Some of the white artists like Frank Stella, who does minimalist work that one wouldn’t see political messaging in automatically, did his "Malcolm’s Bouquet," which was dedicated to Malcolm X and which was shown in one of the [Congress of Racial Equality’s] exhibitions. That’s one of the things that we learned working on the show, that there were these major exhibitions from ’63 to ’67 to benefit CORE in which hundreds of artists participated. And that’s not something that’s really even mentioned in passing in the major literature about the ’60s. That was another thing we were trying to do, was to reinsert all this activism into the larger narrative of art movements in the ’60s. It really transcended styles, which is why we have everything from realist panting to progressive assemblage, collage, minimalism pop. It was really a bringing together of a lot of disparate people.

A lot of the pieces are more than 50 years old. Describe the process of finding them.

Some of the work we actually purchased in advance of the show. For example, a lot of the Black Arts Movement work from Chicago had been collected by a single person who knew all of the artists personally and had made it his own mission to seek out the most powerful and the most important works at the time. These were works that had been exhibited at the time at AfriCobra exhibitions. Two years ago, we bought that collection of Black Arts material, about 45 works, 11 of which appear in the show. That’s how we got to some of those lesser known people.

A lot of it is looking at local exhibition histories. For example, we looked at those CORE exhibition checklists. But it was also looking just in monographic publications from the artists to see what there was from the ’60s that was relevant. Someone like Norman Lewis, who’s a major black abstract expressionist, his work in this vein was pretty well known. As were the works that Jacob Lawrence did about Civil Rights in the ’60s. Romare Bearden, a lot of the work was pretty well-known, but we really sort of filled in the cracks.

We often associate the Civil Rights Movement with photographs. Tell me about your decision to expand that focus.

Photography, of course, is the best known visual record of the Civil Rights Movement and a lot of the photos in the show are quite familiar to people through popular publications and television. But I think that the goal of the exhibition was to take one step beyond that and think about how the rest of the artists address the issue, because they did. What we were looking for was not work that was kind of a one-off or a part from their entire practice, but how they used their already-established approaches to offer political messaging.

Was there one piece that was harder to get than the rest?

There were a few. One of the really tough loans was the amazing, large James Rosenquist from the National Gallery of Canada. It’s a large, three-panel work called "Painting for the American Negro" from 1963. Rosenquist trained and worked as a billboard painter. He translated that gigantism into his permanent aesthetic, so he would make collaged studies using popular imagery from magazines or advertising and then blow them up to sort of heighten the impact of his content and message. …

painting_042414.jpgA lot of museums in particular have signature work, like "Lawdy Mama," (at left) which is owned by the Studio Museum. We had to have a really heartfelt conversation about that one. Overall, we have close to 60 phenomenal lenders to the show, so one has to credit their generosity to do without for the interim.

There’s an explicit focus on sisterhood in the exhibit, which is important because you don’t hear a lot about the women of the Civil Rights Movement.  How did you come to that decision to have that in there?

Of course we very deliberately included as many women artists as we could and acknowledged the role of women in the movement, which was a challenge for them at the time. It was also a challenge for the women who were both black and artists who faced a double barrier to work against. The two of those subjects came together in the sisterhood section. We were really thrilled to have major works by people like Elizabeth Catlett who was not only an activist throughout her life as an artist, but taught so many people. Women like Barbara Jones-Hogu who was part of AfriCobra, which was this black collaborative that was out there in their communities making art to change people’s lives.

This exhibit takes this singular historical moment and looks at the ways that it influenced all of these other moments. So you’re looking at the Black Arts Movement, you’re looking at the Pan-African movement. Did you want to show Civil Rights as sort of this movement that birthed all of these activists and artists who would go on to lead other political struggles?

We were trying to somehow wrap our arms around the complexity of all of it. I had a colleague who, when I told her about the show, first said, "You can’t do just Civil Rights, you’ll have to do the anti-war movement and feminism because it’s all happening by the end of the ’60s." I told this colleague, "That’s too huge, but what we can do is show the roots and the branches that sort of filter out." That was a great challenge because I think the accepted histories of ’60s art, in anything you read, this whole content isn’t there. So if we managed to recuperate this part of the artistic history, that would be great. I think that including the complexities is part of it. 

We’re getting toward the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, and it’s a moment when a lot of the accomplishments of that time have been eroded. What type of intervention do you want this exhibit to make?

We knew when we were putting the exhibition together that our audience was going to include people who had been participated and people who had much less awareness of the individual activism. What we’re hoping people will thinking about is the fact that it took activism, it took people putting their time and selves on the line to make these things happen. They didn’t happen without that. If people hadn’t been willing to risk, in the case of this battle, really life and limb, none of the accomplishments we take for granted today would have come about. It’s a reminder of the fact that things don’t happen automatically because they should, and that there were thousands of people, including activist-artists, who were pushing and pushing to keep the realities and public consciousness and reinforce the necessity for change.