Social Justice and Human Rights Through Art

April 11, 2018

Above (left to right): Yousuf Karsh, Martin Luther King, Jr., 1962, gelatin silver print on paper, Gifted to the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts by Mrs. Yousuf Karsh in honor of Museum Director, Mark M. Johnson, 2009.9.8; Faith Ringgold, Under a Blood Red Sky, 2000, color lithograph on paper, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts Association Purchase, 2001.8.1, © Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York ; Thornton Dial, Sr., Life Begin at the Tail, 1993, pastel and charcoal on paper, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts Association Purchase, 2012.14.4, © Estate of Thornton Dial / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York ; and Faith Ringgold, To Be or Not to Be Free, 2014, color lithograph on paper, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts Association Purchase, 2015.7, © Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.


In honor of the opening of the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the Museum is pleased to highlight works of art that echo the EJI’s mission with representations of the challenges of African Americans, past and present, along with leaders and advocates for social justice and human rights (on view through Sunday, June 3, 2018). The Museum holds more than 4,000 works of art in its collection, and through our exhibitions we strive to introduce our community to the many forms and facets of art and culture that have manifested throughout the world over time.

The Blount Cultural Park and the Museum, a department of the City, are supported by the City of Montgomery with support from Montgomery County, which enables the Museum to offer free admission to its visitors.


Featured Artists

Willie Cole

Like an archeologist, Willie Cole sorts through the remnants of our material culture. He revives our discards and transforms these found objects into expressive works of art that subvert their original consumer significance. In the series Beauties, Cole transmutes ordinary ironing boards into powerful and haunting images that allude to various real and fictional women who labored as domestic help. The prints are titled after women who represent Cole’s ancestors or honor slaves or servants found in movies and literature (for example, Calpurnia refers to the housekeeper in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird). Each large-scale image embodies an individual personality while also alluding to the African Diaspora. Here, the artist utilizes an assortment of ironing board brands, which results in a range of patterning of steam vents. On the printed images, the repetition of marks created by the steam vents symbolize the masses of men and women transported from Africa to America on various slave ships during the Middle Passage. Through the alchemy of transforming banal ironing boards into complex and layered images, Cole deftly intertwines spirituality and history.

Willie Cole (American, born 1955), Calpurnia, Ruth, and Willy Mae, 2012, from the series, The Beauties, intaglio and relief on paper, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts Association Purchase 2016.4.1, 2, 3

Thornton Dial

From childhood, Thornton Dial created what he called “things,” random assemblages of found materials. However, he did not focus on art making until he became unemployed at the age of 55. Dial’s body of work encompasses drawings, paintings, and found-object assemblages that address political and social issues as well as his experiences of the American South. Life Begin at the Tail incorporates many of Dial’s personal symbols including the tiger that occupies the center of the image. For Dial, tigers often represent the strife of African-American men and the tenacity and toughness required to face their historical struggles. Dial also featured female figures in many of his drawings; here he tucks one into the curve of the tiger’s tail.

Crawford Gillis

In Custody (Project for a Southern Armory) was exhibited in New York at the Delphic Studios in January 1938.  In a review of that exhibition, the writer asked Crawford Gillis where he had seen the subject. “I didn’t see it,” he explained. “They announced they would build a new armory in my town (Selma, Alabama), and this is how I felt it would work out.”

Gillis’ painting portrays a frightened black man in the custody of National Guardsmen. The look of terror on the figure’s face conveys his reaction to an environment that was overtly hostile to African-Americans in the time of Jim Crow laws, combined with other abusive practices that operated outside of the legitimate justice system. Within the small-town cultures of the South at that time, poor people, white and black, had little recourse when they became ensnared within webs of hatred and greed.

Crawford Gillis (American,1914–2000), In Custody (Project for a Southern Armory), 1936, watercolor on paper, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Gift of George W. and Sue Royer, Jr., 2013.13

Martin Puryear

Highly regarded for his minimalist, yet organic, wood sculptures, Martin Puryear also has experimented on and off with woodcut printing throughout his career. In the early 1970s, while teaching at Fisk University in Nashville, Puryear encountered Jean Toomer’s (1894–1967) highly influential poetic novel of 1923, Cane. Written at the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance, Toomer’s loose flowing narrative relates the history of African Americans beginning with slavery and ending with emancipation. Toomer’s emphasis on his impressions rather than specific and factual historical events inspired Puryear greatly and mirrors how the artist often approaches his own work. This is visible in the images Puryear created for a special limited edition of Cane in 2000. Relating to the book’s female characters, Puryear’s images are not realistic portraits of the women but rather impressions rendered in a graphic manner.

Martin Puryear (American, born 1941), Becky, 2002, woodcut on handmade paper, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts Association Purchase, 2005.5.2.2

Faith Ringgold

Faith Ringgold’s artistic practice is extremely broad and diverse, including media from painting to quilts, sculptures and performance art to children’s books. Her works of art address both her personal history and the history of her ancestors alongside broader societal issues. This is apparent in the rich narrative and mythology she evokes in her series of story quilts and corresponding prints entitled Coming to Jones Road, which include Under a Blood Red Sky and To Be or Not to Be Free (also on view).

In these works, Ringgold uses imagery and words to draw parallels between the Underground Railroad and her own experiences of establishing her studio in Englewood, New Jersey, a seven-year process that involved winning over hostile neighbors.

Faith Ringgold (American, born 1930), Under a Blood Red Sky, 2000, color lithograph on paper, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts Association Purchase, © Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, 2001.8.1

Yvonne Wells

This elaborate composition shows Yvonne Wells’ ability to combine events, places, and people into a coherent whole. At the lower right, the Mayflower arrives in America, and a black man rows a white man ashore. People picking cotton and a lynching are visible to the left. Next comes Rosa Parks’ historic bus, and above that the earthen dam that was a tomb for three Civil Rights workers killed in Mississippi. At the upper left, Wells shows the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, in which four young girls were killed in a bombing. The large blue shape with the arched opening represents George Wallace’s stand in the schoolhouse door, intended to prevent the integration of the University of Alabama. The dog on a leash symbolizes the attacks on black protesters in Birmingham ordered by Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor. The circle of figures at the lower right depicts Civil Rights marchers, surrounding an image of Dr. Martin Luther King in a golden sun. At the upper right, the artist shows the State Capitol, which up until 1993 flew the Confederate flag atop its dome. The red background represents fire, bloodshed, and the tumult of the Civil Rights era.

Yvonne Wells (American, born 1939), Yesterday: Civil Rights in the South III, 1989, cotton, cotton/polyester blend, wool, polyester, and plastic buttons, Gift of Kempf Hogan, © Yvonne Wells, 2004.20.8
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