As a site of struggle itself, Montgomery, AL is a perfect host for “A Site of Struggle: American Art against Anti-Black Violence,” an exhibit examining how art has been used to protest, treat, mourn, and commemorate racially motivated attacks on African Americans.
Rosa Parks struggled in Montgomery. Just like Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis. And tens of thousands more whose names are not known to history.
Through works of art and ephemera, “A Site of Struggle” explores how art history can help illuminate understanding of the deep roots of racial violence in America. Conceived in 2016, the exhibit spans over 100 years, with artwork created from the anti-lynching campaigns of the 1890s to the founding of Black Lives Matter in 2013.
Visitors find legendary black artists born in the early 1900s – Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012), Norman Lewis (1909-1979) and Hale Woodruff (1900-1980) – expressing the same outrage, grief and fear as black artists mid-century and turn-of-the-century legends—Kerry James Marshall (b. 1955), Alison Saar (b. 1956), Carrie Mae Weems (b. 1953) and Theaster Gates (b. 1973).
Years pass, artists come and go, but violence against black people in America remains a feature, not a problem.
“Art can have the ability to connect more directly to people on an emotional level and I think sometimes art can make history more accessible and more resonant than reading text,” the curator said. exhibition Janet Dees, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Block Museum. of art, told Forbes.com. “By engaging with works of art that have been created over a long historical trajectory, it can help give us a sense of the ongoing nature of anti-Black violence in this country, its deep roots; art can provide another point of access to this history.
After debuting at the Block Museum on the campus of Northwestern University outside of Chicago, “A Site of Struggle” opened at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts on August 13; it will remain there until November 13, 2022.
The oldest work of art in the exhibition is that of a white artist, George Bellows (1882-1925), who produced his poignant The law is too slow in 1923. The anti-lynching pamphlet “A Red Record” by Ida B Wells (1862-1931) from 1895 is the oldest exhibited object.
While contemporary artists continue to work from this tradition, their approach to the subject has evolved from their predecessors.
“The work is less graphic, sometimes less direct, but still very emotionally charged nonetheless,” says Dees. “There is a growing engagement with the gendered aspects of violence, more emphasis on black interiority in psychology, more interest in the process of memorialization and holding space for grief and taking consider larger and more lasting effects of living in a violent landscape in addition to being more directly about specific incidents of physical violence.
Two works of art in the exhibit reflect Alabama’s, and perhaps America’s, most notorious “specific incident of physical violence”, the 1963 bombing of the 16e Street Baptist Church in Birmingham by white nationalists killing four girls. Another refers to the Scottsboro Boys, nine boys and young men falsely accused of raping a white woman in Alabama in 1931, eight of whom were sentenced to death by white jurors and judges in Alabama before the States Supreme Court United does not intervene to quash these convictions.
With a subject of this nature, Dees worked hard in the planning process to ensure that “A Site of Struggle” didn’t simply assail guests with an endless series of violent and terrifying imagery. She brought together a national group of academics and museum professionals to consult on the exhibition’s themes, content and format. Critical discussions of the gallery installation have focused on how to responsibly present this difficult material and offer a structure of attention to the audience. These best practices include limiting the number of works in the space to provide visual and psychological rest, controlling sightlines on the more graphic works, and providing plenty of opportunities for respite and quiet reflection.
Part of her research into how to present these images responsibly led her to Montgomery and the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Peace and Justice Memorial. Opened in 2018 and quickly recognized as one of the most powerful interpretive sites in American history, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice “is the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened by contemporary presumptions of guilt and police brutality.
It has become a place of pilgrimage.
Montgomery has a number of them.
Martin Luther King Jr. led the congregation at Dexter King Memorial Baptist Church from 1954 to 1960. He organized the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956 from his downtown offices in the bullpen of the former merchant of slaves.
Known as “America’s most historic side street”, Dexter Avenue offers the most comprehensive look at the city’s origin story and the history of civil rights in America. The Montgomery Visitor Center offers free “360 Degree Tours” every Saturday at 10:00 a.m., allowing participants to walk in the footsteps of the legends who fought for change here.
The Rosa Parks Museum is two blocks from the visitor center where she was arrested in 1955 for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white woman. Also downtown is the recently expanded Museum of Legacy: From Slavery to Mass Incarceration, another Equal Justice Initiative project, this one, a counterpart to the National Memorial for peace and justice. Visitors learn about the transatlantic slave trade and the role cities in the northern United States played in subsidizing the slave trade.
The Legacy Museum includes a world-class art gallery with major works by the country’s most famous black artists, many of whom feature in “A Site of Struggle”, as well as Gordon Parks, Jacob Lawrence, Faith Ringgold, Deborah Roberts, Romare Bearden and Simone Leigh. A new exhibit features soils from 800 documented lynching sites across the country.
Selma’s Edmond Pettis Bridge, site of the 1965 Bloody Sunday Voting Rights March that was to conclude in Montgomery 50 miles to the east, makes for a powerful excursion. John Lewis helped lead this effort which was brutally suppressed by white police aligned with local militiamen. Hundreds of peaceful activists were injured. Edmond Pettis was a staunch racist whom civil rights organizers are today trying to remove from the memorial on the bridge in favor of Lewis.
Forty miles from Montgomery in the other direction, Tuskegee University and the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site pay tribute to other heroes.
Back in Montgomery, the newest monument recognizing a site of wrestling – of torture – was erected in 2021 to recognize enslaved women who were experimented on without consent or anesthesia by Dr. J. Marion Sims. Known as the “mothers of gynecology,” these women were subjected to unimaginable pain at the hands of Sims, widely celebrated as the “father” of gynecology. Their sacrifices have often gone unrecognized until now.
Michelle Browder created the installation to expose the inhumanity of The Sims and uses “Mothers” to lead a conversation about racial and ethnic disparities in pregnancy-related deaths. Her “Civil Rights and Mothers of Gynecology” wagon tour shocks and inspires.
Another opportunity to visit sites essential to American history is provided by walking tours of the Centennial Hill neighborhood, available upon request. Stops include the Ben Moore Hotel, the city’s Green Book Hotel, and a regular hangout for civil rights leaders, the Malden Brothers Barber Shop, the still-operational shop where Dr. hair and the house of Georgia Gilmore where she made the meals sold to finance the boycott of the buses.
As a wrestling venue, Montgomery won’t be one of the easiest places to visit, but it will be one of the most rewarding.