A new exhibit in the Kruizenga Art Museum, Black Lives Matter, Black Culture Matters, features fifty works of art that address a variety of topics in African American history and culture from the end of the Civil War to the present. The exhibition attempts to provide some historical context for the current Black Lives Matter protests against systemic racism in criminal justice, education, jobs, health care and housing. It is additionally a celebration of Black culture and the many ways that Black culture has enriched American life over the past two centuries. The exhibition does not pretend to be comprehensive, but is offered in the hope that it will lead to contemplation, conversation and ultimately change.
Here are just a few highlights from the exhibition.
Emancipation. Thomas Nast (American, 1840-1902), 1863. Electrotype engraving. Purchased with funds donated by Roberta VanGilder ’53 Kaye, 2020.52.1
This print was published in Harper’s Weekly magazine on January 24, 1863, just three weeks after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, outlawing slavery in the ten states of the Confederacy. The left side of the print features three scenes depicting some of the horrors of slavery, including images of slave catchers, a slave auction, and enslaved people being whipped and branded. The right side of the print features scenes depicting the happier conditions that the artist imagines will prevail after slavery is abolished, including images of a free Black farmstead, a free Black mother sending her children to school, and free Black men and women receiving fair wages for their work. The central image in the print portrays the ultimate goal of emancipation: an intact, multi-generational, prosperous Black family enjoying life together in a comfortably furnished home. This image is one of the first in American art to portray African Americans in a positive light without resorting to stereotypes of them as either a brutish or a brutalized people.
Country Road, Missouri. Henry Bannarn (American, 1910-1965), 1941. Watercolor and graphite on paper. Purchased with funds donated by Judith Kingma ‘56 Hazelton, 2019.81.1
Between 1915 and 1970, more than six million African Americans left the rural South and moved to industrial cities in the Northeast, Midwest and West in search of better lives. Known as the Great Migration, this mass exodus created new economic, political and social opportunities for many Black people, but also led to increases in racial tensions and violence as White Americans struggled to adapt to the realities of a more geographically dispersed Black population. African American artist Henry Bannarn experienced the effects of the Great Migration as a child when his family moved from Oklahoma to Minnesota. He grew up in Minneapolis and studied at the Minneapolis School of Arts before moving to New York City in the 1930s, where he was hired to teach at the Harlem Art Workshop. Known primarily as a sculptor and painter, Bannarn was a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance art world. This painting of a modest house along a country road in Missouri reflects the nostalgia felt by many African Americans for the simpler, rustic life they left behind as a result of the Great Migration.
Missippi. Milton Derr (American, born 1932), 1965. Ink and wash on paper. Hope College Collection, 2018.20.2
Along with desegregation and criminal justice reform, the restoration of voting rights to African Americans was a central goal of the Civil Rights movement during the 1950s and 60s. This dark, emotive drawing portrays the bodies of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, three Civil Rights workers who were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi while campaigning to register African American voters during the so-called Freedom Summer of 1964. The bodies of the three activists were buried in an earthen dam and remained hidden for two months before their remains were finally discovered. Public outrage over the murders fueled support for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. When Mississippi state officials refused to prosecute the killers, they were tried in federal court for Civil Rights violations and seven defendants were found guilty. However, because the federal Civil Rights charges carried lighter sentences than state murder charges, none of the convicted killers served more than six years for their crime. The title of the drawing is deliberately misspelled to approximate the vernacular pronunciation of Mississippi in that state.
John Brown Praying. Jacob Lawrence (American, 1917-2000), 1977. Screen print. Purchased with funds donated by Ronald ’62 and Gerri Vander Molen, 2020.63
In 1941, artist Jacob Lawrence created a series of 22 gouache paintings illustrating the exploits of abolitionist John Brown, who in 1859 tried unsuccessfully to start an insurrection that he hoped would bring an end to the institution of slavery in the United States. Unfortunately, the paints Lawrence used for this series were highly unstable and the condition of the works quickly deteriorated. By 1977, the paintings were too fragile to be publicly displayed, so the Detroit Institute of Arts, which owns the paintings, commissioned Lawrence to recreate the images as silkscreen prints. This print is number 21 from the 1977 Legend of John Brown series. It depicts Brown sitting with his head hung down and holding a cross as he awaits execution for the crimes of treason and murder. Although we cannot see Brown’s face, the dynamic forms and bold colors convey his passionate character, while the image of the cross reminds us that Brown was a martyr whose commitment to racial justice was rooted in his strong Christian faith.
Gossip. Elizabeth Catlett (American, 1915-2012), 2005. Photolithograph and giclée. Gift of Arthur and Kristine Rossof, 2016.64.19
After earning an MFA from the University of Iowa in 1940 and struggling for several years to establish herself as a professional artist, Elizabeth Catlett moved to Mexico in 1946 and joined a left-wing artists’ collective called the People’s Graphic Workshop (Taller de Gráfica Popular). Catlett’s participation in that workshop attracted scrutiny from the United States government, which considered the workshop to be a communist organization. When Catlett attempted to return to the United States in 1961 to visit her dying mother, the government refused to let her enter the country and declared her to be an “undesirable alien.” In protest, Catlett renounced her American citizenship in 1962 and became a Mexican citizen. Although Catlett no longer lived in the United States, she remained closely connected to the Civil Rights movement and created numerous artworks that were inspired by African American history and culture. This image of two women talking was created near the end of Catlett’s career and reminds us about the importance of friendship and the crucial role that women in particular play in African American family and community life.
Black Lives Matter, Black Culture Matters is on display at the Kruizenga Art Museum through November 21, 2020. It is currently open only to visitors with a Hope College ID, Tuesdays-Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Beginning on Thursday, September 17, though, it is open to visitors without a Hope ID on Thursdays and Fridays from 1 to 4 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.