Detail: Elizabeth Catlett, Sharecropper, 1970; full image below
As Faith Ringgold said, “No other creative field is as closed to those who are not white and male as is the visual arts. After I decided to be an artist, the first thing that I had to believe was that I, a black woman, could penetrate the art scene, and that, further, I could do so without sacrificing one iota of my blackness or my femaleness or my humanity.”
To hear how works by African-American artists in our collection, including Ringgold, are speaking to our shared humanity and calls for equality at this moment in American history, we invited members of our community – artists, writers, students, teachers, advocates, leaders of arts programs and Civil Rights Museums – to share personal reflections on selected works of art. Thank you to each of our guest writers for joining with the Museum to lend their visions and voices. What they saw and heard in the works included meditations on being a black father, the wisdom of an elderly woman, the need to organize and take action, the power of art in the struggle for equal justice, the presence and relevance of history, and in the face of violence and resistance, a belief in the possibility for lasting change.
We hope you enjoy reading the reflections and arriving at your own.
Father and Child (1965)
Hush little baby. Daddy’s got you.
Don’t you cry, Baby. Daddy’s got you.
Daddy’s got you, today.
But, I cry in anguish and pain because I can’t promise you tomorrow.
Georgette M. Norman
Retired Director of Troy University Rosa Parks Museum
When I saw the piece, Father and Child, I was instantly overwhelmed by the emotion that welled up in me. Too often, African-American men are painted in the nation’s consciousness as “deadbeat, delinquent, or uncaring.” Though for sure that happens, the vast majority of men of color that I am acquainted with express a heartfelt, deep-seated, unconditional love for their offspring, even those men without the financial resources to adequately demonstrate it according to the strictures of our consumer society.
The tenderness and joy in this piece is evident, even though the image is basically featureless and undefined. I thought of that moment when I first held my infant daughter in my arms and beamed at the memory, in the next instant, I thought of the feelings of security and strength when I, myself was held in my own father’s arms. This too, created a joy for the bond of a parent and child, usually only broken by the passing of the parent or in tragic cases the child.
On the heels of these pleasant reveries, this nation’s ugly history barged its way into my psyche. I thought of the many untold numbers of men of color who were taken away from their children by being sold on the auction block, this could be that last embrace before his departure, never to embrace his child again; not to even mention being murdered for a perceived transgression, large or small.
George Floyd was a father, he will never again hold his child, nor will she be able to find that sense of security and joy in his arms that I still sense when holding my grown daughter in my embrace, and the sense I shared with my own father until his death.
The more things change, the more some stay the same.
MMFA Board Member, artist, retired WSFA
Leap into Freedom (1989)
I like the abstract vitality of Dial’s work, the shapes, the colors, the sense of movement and mystery. Leap into Freedom is less abstract than many of his 3-D compositions, with the recognizable animal — is it a dog, a razorback, a bull? — and the well-shaped flowers and fronds and the wild climbing plants with the heart petals. It is a pleasing but intriguing composition, with the animal resolutely striding forward into a new place.
Horace Randall Williams
Co-founder, Editor-in-Chief, NewSouth Books
Rosa Parks I (2005)
This piece inspires the need to get organized. To make positive change, We The People must get organized. We must communicate the problem and detail the actions we want to see completed to provide a long-standing solution—a change in culture, practice, and policy.
To me, this piece represents the power of alignment. While there are various illustrations arranged across the quilt, they all have one focus and objective. Many pieces, many parts, with one common goal. For this, Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott symbolizes the power and influence of an organized nonviolent action movement. The blueprint for change has already been designed and illustrated in this piece by Alabama-born artist Yvonne Wells.
President and Founder of 21 Dreams
Elizabeth Catlett’s piece, the Sharecropper, has been transcendent and vital imagery in the long-winded fight in activism for black rights. Aside from being an artist that I look to as an example for women artists or black artists, she’s a multidisciplinary creator that manipulates materials to speak on a narrative about struggle, power, and perseverance.
Last summer I met a printmaker from Georgia, Jamaal Barber, whose work evoked the similar feelings I get from Catlett’s work. His pieces revolve around black history, black strength, and modern-day tropes saturated in systemic racism.
Alabama State University student and artist
Shugg Lampley at the Garden Gate (negative 1968; printed 2007)
If you ask her, she will tell you the stories of her girlhood. Walk through the gate kind hands have opened for you. Accept the meal that waits for you at her table. Take and eat all that she offers: love and loss, beauty and sorrow, heartbreak, and joy.
Chair, Department of Languages and Literatures, Alabama State University
Under a Blood Red Sky (2000)
Faith Ringgold’s storytelling talents are on abundant display in this color lithograph on paper, one of a series, depicting a group of runaway slaves making their way to freedom under cover of night. More abstract than some of her other work and highly charged in reds and blacks with the green of the trees fairly glowing in contrast, the composition vibrates with the danger and audacity of the undertaking. A border, designed with Ringgold’s signature text frames the work, suggests that this is only one chapter in the historically interesting story of African Americans moving toward their meeting with destiny.
Suzanne La Rosa
Co-founder, Publisher, NewSouth Books
To me, the V4 is primarily about dominance and individuality. The ovals are egg or head-shaped and easy to see as symbolic of individuals. In this case, literally black and white individuals – and some in-between. The grey, black or white colors and outlines also suggest the lack of anything that is “pure” 100% black or white. There are a couple of ways to look at the issue of dominance here; first and most obviously the large mostly white vertical oval near the center is literally overlapping and seems to be dominating a large collection of smaller black and white ovals. The large vertical nature of the white oval implies an ‘authority’ and a ‘stability’ in the blockage of the movement of the others. The smaller ovals behind the large white one appear more active due to the changes in their directions/orientations and varieties in their sizes, and color/values. They could be trapped, pushing forward or disengaging from the dominant relationship and finding individual freedom. The ovals that are separate/free seem to be rising higher, perhaps traveling further and faster without the blockage. The smaller free ovals also appear to be engaging in relationships with other different colored ovals of similar sizes without the issue of dominance as a barrier.
At present, with the daily news being what it is, this makes me think primarily about individual responses to oppression and domination, the larger themes in the image of parts that were previously held together starting to break away, and the dynamics of a relationship changing – evolving and moving out of an established recognized pattern and into a new one. Everything changes, but the process can often cause anxiety, confusion, and fear of the unknown – even when the change is for the better.
Nathaniel Allen III
Chair, Department of Visual Arts, Alabama State University
Yesterday: Civil Rights in the South III (1989)
Yvonne Wells’ story quilt narrates, through vivid images, the African American civil rights journey in the South—yesterday—from slavery through the civil rights movement of the 1960s. But the images are also very much a depiction of today, of the current nationwide, nonviolent protests calling for justice and being met with violent responses, even murder. The most striking image of all is the circle of protesters—united and diverse—surrounding a speaker (Martin Luther King, Jr.) centered within a golden sun. Can this symbolize a plea and a ray of hope for “equal justice under law,” for positive civic and social change through peaceful, nonviolent action today as for yesterday?
Former MMFA Board Member, Docent, retired from Alabama State University
The 1920’s…The Migrants Arrive and Cast Their Ballots (1974)
Jacob Lawrence’s work is a visual representation of the resourcefulness and resilience of the human spirit. As a designer, I appreciate his ability to communicate his messages with simple shapes and unmixed colors. I can’t help but see his raw approach to painting and printmaking foreshadowing the invention of hip hop, where artists would craft narratives over minimalistic production. Lawrence, who also grew up during the Great Depression, found liberation in painting scenes that captured the plight of African Americans. It is a great thing that he has left us with a roadmap on how to capture beauty and perspective in difficult times.
Illustrator and Design Teacher, Lanier High School