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Rob Perrée: Civil Rights and Art

Civil Rights and Art

“For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights”

Phillips Academy, 180 Main Street
April 13–July 31

Frank Cieciorka, pamphlet cover for All Power to the People: The Story of the Black Panther Party (1970).

A traveling exhibition organized by Maurice Berger, this substantial show explores the trajectory of the civil rights movement in relation to mass media, popular trends, and visual culture in America at the time. Over 250 objects and artifacts from the 1940s through the 1970s are presented via a carefully crafted narrative that offers a multifaceted account of African-American struggles and triumphs.

The exhibition opens with a powerful display on tropes of blackness: A minstrel makeup set used by performers in blackface is displayed alongside infamous “Coloreds Only” signs, among other jarring juxtapositions. The exhibition then pursues several interweaving, chronological histories, including themes of outwardly political content, African-American artistic and cultural achievements, and social change at large. Highlights include Gordon Parks’s commanding portraits; then-Cassius Clay’s beatific first cover of Time magazine from 1963; coverage from the black media of Emmett Till’s brutal lynching; and a video montage of African-American entertainers on The Ed Sullivan Show from 1948 to 1971. As the exhibition concludes, a video interview with Malcolm X is paired with Emory Douglas’s Black Panther Party posters and Madison Avenue advertisements pitched to the growing African-American consumer market. Here, the sometimes uneasy relationship between politics, culture, and consumption is presented more associatively, leaving the viewer to ponder the dynamics between them. Yet exhibiting such a broad swath of visual culture reveals the reciprocal relationship between politics and culture—civil rights was not just a legal struggle but also a way for African Americans to gain agency as cultural producers and purveyors. In this way, “For All the World to See” provides a historical mirror for our current moment of global unrest, in which demands and claims over cultural ownership have spurred almost as much social momentum as the toppling of states.