As a site of struggle itself, Montgomery, AL makes a perfect host for “A Site of Struggle: American Art against Anti-Black Violence,” an exhibition examining how art has been used to protest, process, mourn and memorialize racially motivated attacks against African Americans.
Through works of art and ephemera, “A Site of Struggle” explores how art history can help inform the understanding of racial violence’s deep roots in America. Conceived in 2016, the exhibition spans more than 100 years, with art created from the anti-lynching campaigns of the 1890s to the founding of Black Lives Matter in 2013.
Visitors find legendary Black artists born in the early 1900s–Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012), Norman Lewis (1909-1979) and Hale Woodruff (1900-1980)–expressing the same outrage, grief and fear as legendary Black artists from the mid-century and late century–Kerry James Marshall (b. 1955), Alison Saar (b. 1956), Carrie Mae Weems (b. 1953) and Theaster Gates (b. 1973).
Years roll by, artists come and go, but violence against Black people in America remains a feature, not a glitch.
“Art can have the ability to connect to people more directly on an emotional level and I think that art can sometimes make history more accessible and more resonant than reading text,” exhibition curator Janet Dees, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Block Museum of Art, told Forbes.com. “By engaging with works of art that have been created over a long historical trajectory, that can help give us a sense of the continual nature of anti-Black violence in this country, its deep roots; art can allow another point of access into that history.”
After debuting at the Block Museum on Northwestern University’s campus outside Chicago, “A Site of Struggle” opened at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts on August 13; it will remain on view there through November 13, 2022.
The oldest artwork in the exhibition comes from a white artist, George Bellows (1882-1925), who produced his harrowing The Law is Too Slow in 1923. Ida B Wells’ (1862-1931) anti-lynching pamphlet “A Red Record” from 1895 is the oldest object on view.
While contemporary artists continue working from this tradition, how they’re approaching the subject has evolved from their predecessors.
“The work is less graphic, sometimes less direct, but nevertheless, still very emotionally charged,” Dees explains. “There’s increasing engagement with the gender aspects of violence, more emphasis on Black interiority in psychology, more interest in the process of memorialization and holding space for grief and taking to account the larger and longer lasting effects of living in a landscape of violence in addition to being more directly about specific incidents of physical violence.”
Two artworks in the show reflect upon Alabama’s, and perhaps America’s, most notorious “specific incident of physical violence,” the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham by white nationalists killing four girls. Another references the Scottsboro Boys, nine boys and young men falsely accused of raping a white woman in Alabama in 1931, eight of whom were sentenced to death by white jurors and judges in Alabama before the U.S. Supreme Court intervened to overturn those convictions.
With subject matter of this nature, Dees worked hard in the planning process to make sure “A Site of Struggle” didn’t simply assault guests with an unending series of violent and terrifying images. She convened a national group of scholars and museum professionals to consult on the exhibition’s themes, content and format. Critical discussions about the gallery installation centered around how to responsibly present this challenging material and offer a structure of care for audiences. These best practices include limiting the number of works in the space to provide visual and psychological rest, controlling the sight lines to the most graphic works and offering numerous opportunities for respite and quiet reflection.
Part of her research on how to present these images responsibly took her to Montgomery and the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Opened in 2018 and quickly recognized as one of the most powerful sites interpreting American history, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice “is the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved Black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence.”
It has become a pilgrimage site.
Montgomery has a number of those.
Martin Luther King Jr. led the congregation at the Dexter King Memorial Baptist Church from 1954 to 1960. He organized the 1956 Montgomery bus boycott from his offices downtown in the former slave trader’s pen.
Known as “the most historic short street in America,” Dexter Avenue provides the most comprehensive look at the city’s origin story and Civil Rights history in America. The Montgomery Visitor’s Center offers free “360-Degree Tours” every Saturday at 10:00 AM allowing participants to walk in the footsteps of the legends who fought for change here.
The Rosa Parks Museum sits two blocks from the visitor center at the location where she was arrested in 1955 for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white woman. Also downtown is the newly expanded Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, another Equal Justice Initiative project, this one, a counterpart to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Visitors learn about the transatlantic slave trade and the role that northern U.S. cities had in subsidizing the slave trade.
The Legacy Museum includes a world-class art gallery with major works from the most celebrated Black artists in the country, including many featured in “A Site of Struggle,” along with Gordon Parks, Jacob Lawrence, Faith Ringgold, Deborah Roberts, Romare Bearden and Simone Leigh. A new exhibition displays soil from 800 lynching sites documented around the country.
Selma’s Edmond Pettis Bridge, site of the Bloody Sunday voting rights march in 1965 which was intended to conclude in Montgomery 50 miles east, makes for a powerful excursion. John Lewis helped lead that effort which was brutally put down by white police aligned with local vigilantes. Hundreds of peaceful activists were injured. Edmond Pettis was a staunch racist whom civil rights organizers today are trying to remove from memorialization on the bridge in favor of Lewis.
Back in Montgomery, the newest monument recognizing a site of struggle–of torture–was erected in 2021 to recognize the enslaved women who were experimented on without consent or anesthesia by Dr. J. Marion Sims. Known as the “Mothers of Gynecology,” these women were subjected to unimaginable pain at the hands of Sims who is widely celebrated as the “father” of gynecology. Their sacrifices have often been unrecognized until now.
Michelle Browder created the installation to expose Sims’ inhumanity and uses the “Mothers” in leading a conversation regarding racial and ethnic disparities in pregnancy-related deaths. Her “Civil Rights and Mothers of Gynecology” trolly tour shocks and inspires.
Another opportunity to visit sites critical to American history comes via walking tours of the Centennial Hill neighborhood which are available by request. Stops include the Ben Moore Hotel, the city’s Green Book hotel and a regular meeting spot for civil rights leaders, the Malden Brothers Barber shop, the still-operational shop where Dr. King got his hair cut, and the home of Georgia Gilmore where she made the meals that were sold to fund the bus boycott.
As a site of struggle, Montgomery won’t be one of the easiest places to visit, it will, however, be one of the most rewarding.