Ai Weiwei proclaimed that “art is a very important weapon to achieve human freedom.” When examining the civil rights movement, there is no doubt that art played a pivotal role in shaping and advancing the fight for equality. Throughout the era, countless artists reacted to issues of violent racism, segregation, and black identity in the United States. In honor of Black History Month we’ve compiled a short, chronological list of five artworks—from five different exhibitions (one of which opened recently in the U.S.)—to highlight some of the influential art made during the battle for civil rights. Our list barely skims the surface, so we encourage you to further explore the diverse works and themes presented in the exhibitions mentioned.
August the Squared Fire (1965)
Known for injecting political commentary into traditionally abstract forms, Melvin Edwards primarily works with steel industrial objects, welding them with other found or created pieces to produce distorted modernist structures. This technique is evident in his work August the Squared Fire. Although the piece is not explicitly about the civil rights movement, the work’s name refers to the Watts riots of 1965, and the composition alludes to the wreckage on 103rd Street that resulted from it. The uprising, which resulted in 34 deaths, occurred in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in reaction to police brutality against an African-American motorist who was initially pulled over on suspicion of reckless driving. Edwards’ work has often been interpreted as symbolic of the brutality of the African American experience, and of violence in general.
This sculpture was on display in the 2012 exhibition “Now Dig This! Art & Black Los Angeles 1960-1980,” which chronicled the legacy of a ground-breaking group of African American artists in L.A., and the notion of African American identity and culture throughout the civil rights and Black Power movements. Some other artists included in the exhibition were Charles Gaines, John Outterbridge, Maren Hassinger, Samella Lewis, and Senga Nengudi. The exhibition traveled from the Los Angeles Hammer Museum to MoMA PS1 in NY and Williams College Museum of Art in Williamstown, MA.
Mississippi Incident (1965)
Vincent Smith’s etching Mississippi Incident depicts a nightmarish scene: a monstrous Klansman and an armed sheriff standing large and powerful behind a fence in the foreground, while two figures stroll unaware in the background, giving the work an overwhelming sense of danger and anticipation. Smith’s prints were created during the height of the civil rights movement, when demonstrations and racially motivated violence were commonplace and instilled widespread fear throughout the South.
Smith’s piece was a part of the 1988 exhibition “Committed to Print: Social and Political Themes in Recent American Printed Art” at New York's Museum of Modern Art. The exhibit presented 108 artist and collaborative groups that depicted reactions to major events over the past quarter century, such as the civil rights movement and political assassinations of the 1960s. The show, curated by Deborah Wye, was revolutionary for MoMA, since it included many more minority and women artists than was typical for an exhibition at the museum during the time.
The Door (Admissions Office) (1969)
David Hammons’s piece The Door (Admissions Office) references the struggles associated with desegregating schools during the civil rights movement. In this work, a wooden door is labeled “Admissions Office” on its acrylic, transparent center—and a black ink print of two hands, a face, and a body pressed forcibly against it imply the body of an excluded African American student. It has been said that the effort to desegregate schools across the U.S. was the most drastic and far-reaching aspect of the civil rights movement, and thus received some of the most vicious push back. Throughout the desegregation process, the opposition would physically stand in the way of the admissions office, preventing students of color from entering. The physicality of the dispute is palpable in this work, allowing viewers to empathize with the struggle many African Americans children felt during the desegregation era.
Hammons’ piece was on view at the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s 2014 show “Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties.” The exhibition was made up of a racially diverse group of 66 artists whose work was influenced by racial discrimination and conflict throughout the 1960s. Artworks in the exhibition ranged from assemblage, Minimalism, Pop, photography, painting, and sculpture, illustrating how generative the subject matter was across a wide range of disciplines. The exhibition opened in conjunction with the 59th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Barbara Jones-Hogu was co-founder of the black artist collective AfriCOBRA (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists) which formed in Chicago in 1968 in the wake of the Detroit rebellion. (Other artists in the collective included Jeffrey Donaldson, Wadsworth Jarrell, and Gerald Williams.) AfriCOBRA approached art-making as a radical act, and established Afrocentric aesthetic concepts and attitudes that identified with black culture in the U.S. This notion of black cultural empowerment through art is evident in Jones-Hogu’s screen print, Unite. Central to the piece are numerous African-American figures whose fists are raised in the air, a symbol of black power in the U.S. The word “unite” repeats, fragmented throughout the work, in an effort to inspire the African American community to come together as a joint, commanding group.
This artwork was on display at the Detroit Institute of Arts’ 2017 exhibition, “Art of Rebellion: Black Art of the Civil Rights Movement.” The show focused on five black artist collectives operating throughout the country in the 1960s, and also independent artists working in later years who were inspired by art from the civil rights movements. The show’s curator Valerie Mercer said she hoped the show helped its audience understand how “artists participated in their own way in the civil rights and black power movement.”
The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972)
Betye Saar is best known for her assemblage pieces that recycle found objects, often by combining African and Native American religious symbols with racist imagery from pop culture. One such piece, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, repurposes the black “mammy” figure, as the doll holds a small rifle instead of the pencil and notepad the figurine originally held when Saar found it. Possessing guns instead of pencils liberates the character, as she’s now threatening and tough instead of subservient. She is further empowered by the symbolic black power fist placed in the center of the work. Saar felt as though this was her first politically conscious piece. In an interview she told The New York Times, “I was really motivated by the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968. Before that I hadn’t felt any pressure to make political art…The images on television were pretty brutal. You saw the police at war with protesters who just wanted to eat where they wanted or sit on a bus where they wanted. I was a mom with three kids at home; I couldn’t go on marches, but I used my art to release emotional feelings of anger and resentment.”
While Saar had been largely overlooked as an artist for much of her career, she now has an entire room honoring her work in the exhibition “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” now on view at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. On display are 150 works from 60 artists, dating between 1963 and 1983. The show is set to travel to the Brooklyn Museum in September 2018. The exhibition debuted at the Tate Modern in London this past summer, when many artists in the show exhibited in the U.K. for the first time.