New Brooklyn museum exhibit highlights political art from civil rights period

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The 1960s were a heady time in America—marked by assassinations, riots, violent clashes with law enforcement and the peak of the civil rights movement.  Those of us who were not yet born are mostly familiar with that era via history books, old news reels and family stories. But there is another way that that the 1960s were documented—the arts.

Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties, a new book from Monacelli Press, explores the way visual artists captured the politics and energy of that era. Edited by Brooklyn Museum curator Dr. Teresa Carbone and Columbia University professor Dr. Kellie Jones, the book features more than 100 artworks as well as background information on the artists and context of the pieces.  Photos, paintings, installations and even clothing are all featured in the book, which is a companion piece to a Brooklyn Museum exhibit of the same name that opens March 7th.  The timing for the release of Witness is a nod to the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act.

Dr. Jones, noted author and curator and daughter of the late Amiri Baraka, teaches many of the pieces featured in Witness as part of her art history courses, but she said that working on Witness shifted her view of some artists.

“During this project, we came upon certain artists who were not known for political work, but here they were with political work. There were people like Frank Stella with “Malcolm’s Bouquet.” He’s known for pop art not political pieces, yet here he has a very political piece,” said Dr. Jones.

Of course Dr. Jones doesn’t have favorites because all of the art works were carefully selected and included in Witness for their own unique merits, but certain pieces stood out by virtue of unexpected use of media.  “Something that was a great find was Jae Jarrell’s Urban Wall Suit. It is absolutely great.  I saw it and thought ‘Wow this is fantastic!’ It was a different way of approaching fabric,” said Dr. Jones of Jarrell’s multi-colored two piece suit.

Jae Jarrell is a founding member of AfriCobra (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists), an art collective that was founded in the 1960s in Chicago. Jarrell now lives in Ohio and continues to create art and fashion pieces. “Several of us were pretty well honed into our careers by the time we formed AfriCobra. We were looking for new directions and we saw the need to address things in our urban communities. We thought there was a voice that artists should have.  We wanted to showcase the beauty of our culture and be revolutionary,” explained Jarrell.

Jarrell said that graffiti was part of the inspiration for her Urban Wall Suit. “We were doing a group photo in front of a wall by a commuter train. There were a few tags on the wall. Graffiti was pretty new back then and I respected it.  Graffiti is like the neighborhood tabloid. It’s like a diary of the hood. The daily paper is not necessarily in your voice or talking to you. In fact I might be talking all around you.  I thought graffiti was cool and I wanted to work it into the Urban Wall Suit,” recalled Jarrell.

Dr. Teresa Carbone who has been a curator at the Brooklyn Museum for almost 30 years began working on Witness two and a half years ago. “It was interesting to see how much of this work had been omitted from the best known studies of the 60s. People write about the 60s without taking into account this openly political work.  It’s the intersection of art and activism. The artists for the show really believed in cultural activism,” said Dr. Carbone.

With all of the current toics in the news, Dr. Carbone thinks visitors to the Witness exhibit might draw parallels between today and the civil rights era. “ A lot of the issues going on now, with voting rights and certain court cases, there’s a lot of resonance with what was going on in the 60s,” noted Dr. Carbone.

Witness will be at the Brooklyn Museum March 7 – July 6, 2014. The book is available online and in stores beginningMarch 4, 2014.

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