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Bearing Witness: Art of Alabama

Alabama artists have borne witness to the drama of American and world history, including the rise of agriculture and native ceremonial centers, immigration, wars, gold rushes, forced removal, emancipation, economic depressions, and the advent of motorized flight. All along, artists have participated in and documented the events that have shaped our state. Their work across this wide canvas of history will be examined at a major symposium hosted by the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA). Bearing Witness: Art of Alabama will be held Thursday, November 14 through Saturday, November 16, 2019. Bearing Witness will feature leading scholars such as Bridget R. Cooks, Katelyn Crawford, Bill Eiland, James Knight, and Richard J. Powell, discussing the breadth of Alabama visual arts from the Pre-Columbian period to the present. This will be the art history event of Alabama’s bicentennial celebration.

Bearing Witness is the brainchild of recently retired MMFA interim director Ed Bridges. For more than a year, Dr. Bridges has convened a planning committee made up of representatives from the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, the Alabama State Council on the Arts (ASCA), and the Landmarks Foundation. The group has reached out nationally to secure scholars who have researched and written on Alabama art. The result of their work is a symposium schedule spanning three days, offering lectures, gallery talks, an artist market, and a book fair all centered around the creativity of Alabamians.

The heart of the Bearing Witness symposium will be the lectures. Dr. Vernon James Knight, professor emeritus from the University of Alabama, will address the art of native peoples, drawing upon his long archaeological career. William Underwood Eiland, director of the Georgia Museum of Art, will find in the faces of its peoples a portrait of Alabama through the ages. Dr. Michael Panhorst, director of the Landmarks Foundation, will speak on From Southern Shores to Northern Vales: Alabama Landscapes, 1819–1969, the exhibition he guest-curated at the MMFA. Dr. Katelyn Crawford, curator at the Birmingham Museum of Art (BMA), will address the art of Alabama industry, drawing upon her related research. Dr. Bridget R. Cooks, associate professor at the University of California, Irvine, will explore the art of the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama, including works by artists in the MMFA’s collection. Dr. Graham C. Boettcher, director of the BMA, will provide an overview of significant early 20th-century women artists of Alabama, including Clara Weaver Parrish, Anne Goldthwaite, and Zelda Fitzgerald. Margaret Lynne Ausfeld, curator at the MMFA, will speak on Alabama’s painters of the New South and the Dixie Art Colony. Dr. Richard J. Powell, professor at Duke University, will examine the emergence of self-taught Alabama artists to national prominence. Chester Higgins, photographer and author, will reflect on the Tuskegee approach to Alabama photography and how Alabama shaped him as an artist.

Dr. Elliot Knight, director of ASCA, will host a panel on public art in Alabama with Dennis Harper from the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art, Chintia Kirana from Expose Art House, Dana Lemmer from the Wiregrass Museum of Art, and Deborah Velders from the Mobile Museum of Art. This discussion will include everything from Confederate monuments and Works Progress Administration works to the new Alabama Bicentennial Park. A panel discussion on art in Alabama today will include Stan Hackney from the Mobile Museum of Art, Dr. Jennifer Jankauskas from the MMFA, Essie Pettway from Gee’s Bend, and Peter Prinz from Space One Eleven.

While at the symposium, attendees can view related exhibitions such as Alabama Landscapes; Cal Breed: Signs of Lift; and Charles Shannon. In addition to the exhibitions, select works by Alabama artists, including Chester Higgins’ photograph Shugg Lampley at the Garden Gate (negative 1968, printed 2007) featured on the previous page, will be on view in the galleries. To enhance this experience, gallery talks by guest scholars and artists will include Dr. Graham C. Boettcher from the BMA; Dr. Jennifer Jankauskas from the MMFA; Dr. Michael W. Panhorst from the Landmarks Foundation; Dr. Richard J. Powell from Duke University; Chester Higgins, Jr.; and Margaret Lynne Ausfeld from the MMFA.

To underscore the centrality of the role of artists, during Bearing Witness the MMFA’s 10th annual Artist Market will be held on Saturday, November 16. The Artist Market kickoff reception for MMFA members and paid symposium guests will be on Friday evening. Read Herring will also be onsite Friday with books by speakers available for purchase.

Image Credit: Chester Higgins (American, born 1946), Shugg Lampley at the Garden Gate, negative 1968, printed 2007, platinum print on paper, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts Association Purchase, 2007.14

Essay By

Joey Brackner

Director of the Alabama Center for Traditional Culture at the Alabama State Council on the Arts and one of the lead organizers of Bearing Witness.