Art and civil rights? Yup.

Mother by Charles Wilbert White

“Visual arts played an enormous role [in the civil rights movement]. [The arts] were not merely cultural adjuncts, but central to the struggle.”  Paul Von Blum UCLA Professor

On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, The Bare Square recognizes a handful of the myriad of visual artists whose work inspired those struggling for civil rights or vice versa.

Born in Chicago in 1918, African-American painter and lithographer Charles Wilbert White studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Art Students League in New York City. He rose to prominence on the strength of his commissioned murals, and his artwork is now included in prestigious collections including the National Gallery of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum of Art. He taught for decades at Otis Art Institute.

Frederick Douglass Lives Again by Charles Wilbert White

Created in 1945, the artwork above right, entitled Mother, reflects White’s depiction of everyday people. Mother‘s strong, geometric, almost Cubist lines work with expressive eyes and overall darkness to convey sadness. The star on the window in the background reminds the viewer of the emotional trial of waiting for the return of a loved one who has gone off to war, in this case World War II.

White’s work often showed powerful figures from black history, as he did in Frederick Douglass Lives Again in 1949, shown right. White died in 1979.

Installation artist, performance artist, and sculptor David Hammons, born in 1943, grew up and studied art in Chicago and Los Angeles during the tumultuous 60s, before settling in New York City in 1974. He has numerous works included in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, as well as commissioned public artworks.

Spade With Chains by David Hammons

Hammons’ sculpture Spade with Chains (1973) and his painting Injustice Case (1970), showed his biting commentary on the African-American experience in America. Taking ownership of a derogatory moniker, Spade with Chains (right) reflects the heavy reality of hard labor and bondage of slavery.

Hammons sold snowballs in 1983 in downtown Manhattan as part of a performance art piece called the Blizz-aard Ball Sale. Hammons varied the prices of the snowballs according to size as a commentary on perceived value, the role of art galleries, the premium placed on “whiteness”, and the reality of selling wares in the street.

Hammons’ most recognizable work is probably African American Flag (1990), shown below left. Now part of the MoMA permanent collection, African American Flag uses the pattern of the American flag with black replaced for white and green replacing blue. The resulting red, black, and green flag reminds the viewer of colors often used in flags of African countries, and co-opts a familiar symbol of America to portray the black experience in America, making a powerful statement.

African American Flag by David Hammons

Today, African American artists abound. From the millions commanded by paintings of late graffiti artist Basquiat, to the breakout successes of Kehinde Wiley, and The Bare Square’s Fred Scott.

Artists like David Hammons, Charles Wilbert White, Faith Ringold, Elizabeth Catlet, Jacob Lawrence,  John Riddle, Betye Saar, and countless others paved their way.

Happy Birthday, Rev. Dr. King.

- James

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