Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 10, 2018
Valerie J. Mercer Art of Rebellion: Black Art of the Civil Rights Movement Exh. cat. Detroit: Detroit Institute of Arts, 2017. 80 pp. Cloth $19.95 (9780895581754)
Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, MI, July 23–October 22, 2017
Museum of African American History Say It Loud: Art, History, Rebellion Detroit: Museum of African American History, 2017.
Museum of African American History, Detroit, MI, July 23, 2017–January 2, 2018
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Installation view, Art of Rebellion: Black Art of the Civil Rights Movement, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, July 12–October 22, 2017 (photograph © Marc Langlois; provided by Detroit Institute of Arts)

At 3:15 a.m. in the early morning of July 23, 1967, members of the vice squad of the Detroit police department raided the second-floor apartment located at 9125 Twelfth Street. This after-hours drinking parlor, or “blind pig,” was a well-known establishment to patrons and police alike. As a familiar watering hole, the site served its black middle-class patrons when other segregated spaces in downtown Detroit would not, yet its illicit status provoked many raids, including nine in the preceding twelve months. While previous incidents may have yielded fines, minor arrests, or increased bribery dues, on this muggy July morning, the police arrested all eighty-five or so of the patrons and employees inside and forcibly escorted them to the Twelfth Street sidewalk where they awaited the arrival of the police wagons. With the wagons delayed nearly an hour, the physical provocations of the police grew in severity and a crowd of residents amassed around the increasingly antagonistic spectacle. By 4 a.m., the crowd began to throw bottles and chastise the police. By 5 a.m., the looting began. By 8:24 a.m., the first fire occurred. For the next five days, Detroit was embroiled in a bitter struggle between the residents and the enforcers of state-sanctioned power: the Detroit police, the Michigan state police, the National Guard, and federal troops.  By the end of this uprising, 3,800 were arrested, 1,000 buildings were burned, and 43 individuals (33 black, 10 white) were killed. As a result, the course of this city’s history was forever altered.

During the summer and fall of 2017 and early 2018, two of Detroit’s prominent cultural institutions, the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA) and the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History turned toward the visual arts to memorialize the history of this rebellion and to situate the localized events into a broader context of similar urban disruptions that took place in the United States throughout the 1960s and that continue through the present day. Significantly, each exhibition—Art of Rebellion: Black Art of the Civil Rights Movement and Say It Loud: Art, History, Rebellion—foregrounded the term “rebellion,” rather than the more colloquial “riot,” to label acts of dissent, resistance, and activism characteristic of such uprisings. As such, the exhibitions forced the viewer to focus less on the violence that arose in Detroit and other urban centers throughout America and more on the enduring effects of institutional racism, social injustice, and police brutality.

At DIA, Art of Rebellion: Black Art of the Civil Rights Movement concentrated on some of the most significant African American collectives that emerged during the 1960s, while also incorporating pieces made by local Detroit artists in the wake of the uprising. The exhibition concluded with a brief selection of notable contemporary works that continue to comment on legacies of racialized violence and injustice. The first room was dedicated to the works of three artistic collectives: AfriCobra (African Commune for Bad Relevant Artists), Kamonige (Kikuyu for “a group of people acting together”), and Weusi (Swahili for “blackness”). While each collective had its own distinctive style—from the ethereal black-and-white photograph James Baldwin in Setting Sun over Harlem, Harlem, New York by Kamonige’s Ming Smith to Weusi’s Ademola Olugebefola’s totemic representation of the Yoruba Orisha Shango to the radiant image-text paintings of AfriCobra’s Wadsworth Jarrell, such as Three Queens—the primarily figurative works collectively speak to black empowerment and racial uplift in the face of a derisive dominant culture.

From there, the next room transitioned from the polychromatic vibrancy of Jarrell and others to the monochromatic abstractions of Charles Alston, Norman Lewis, Merton Simpson, and Romare Bearden, members of the collective Spiral. Alongside works such as Alston’s Black and White #7 (1961) and Lewis’s Untitled (Alabama) (1967), the viewer also confronted a wall marked “Detroit ’67.” Here, Detroit artist Allie McGhee’s tense and gripping Black Attack (1967), made shortly after the uprising, was juxtaposed with Rita Dickerson’s more recent painting 1967: Death in the Algiers Motel and Beyond (2017). At once testifying to the lives of the three men killed by police at the Algiers Motel on July 26, 1967—Fred Temple, Aubrey Pollard, and Carl Cooper—Dickerson’s piece also eulogizes the recent spate of violence meted against African Americans, by inserting the names of black men and women such as Aiyana Jones, Melissa Williams, Tamir Rice, and Philando Castile, who were killed by police. This theme continues into the final room where the viewer is confronted by just how ubiquitous such acts of violence are in our past and present. In that room the viewer looked upon Titus Kaphar’s palimpsestic drawing For Trayvon, Amadou, Sean, and Mike (2014), which features hauntingly rendered portraits of Trayvon Martin, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, and Michael Brown, each superimposed one on top of the other. Each exists only through the trace of the thin, white contours of their faces overlaid on the black ground. Just to the left, the viewer sees Antonia Clifford’s black-and-white poster 100 Black Women & Girls Killed by Police, which lists their names, a forceful reminder that racial violence does not exist along gendered lines. As you exited, you passed under Adam Pendleton’s mixed-media installation Black Lives Matter #3 (2015), with, hung in grid-like fashion, a number of small paper cards on which viewers were invited to document their thoughts and reactions to the exhibition. Amidst historical recollections and thoughts of gratitude, perhaps the most salient card was a hand-drawn black fist, raised, and viewed from a birds-eye perspective.  

DIA’s gesture to include voices from the community was a unique and compelling attribute of the exhibition as a whole. Not only did these paper cards serve viewers ambulating throughout the museum, so did the large placards placed alongside the art in each room, which contextualized the art and artists within a larger historical perspective. Never too didactic, these placards guided visitors from space to space and from historical moment to historical moment. Similarly, the catalogue for the exhibition features an introductory essay by curator Valerie J. Mercer, which explains the impetus for the exhibition, offers up an expanded summary of art made during the civil rights movement, and discusses the pressing need for contemporary practitioners to turn to previous generations of black artists in order to propose new modes of challenging the artistic and political status quo. Of all the supplemental information provided by DIA, the most impactful, at least for this viewer, was the occasional signage that read “A Detroiter Responds.” Here, local artists, educators, and activists had the opportunity to ruminate over one specific work, and each provided a touching testimony to the strength of the works on view. Writing about Clifford’s aforementioned 100 Black Women & Girls Killed, writer, editor, performer, and executive director of Obsidian Blues Sherina Rodriguez Sharpe questions, “How many black women does it take to make a case that we are valuable? 100? And this pain’s got to fit on a sign. Black grief, black loss, black rage must be orderly, or it will be renamed ‘riot.’” While viewing an art object can often be a solitary experience, these placards encouraged a dialogue between viewer, work, and respondent.

The Wright Museum’s sprawling installation Say It Loud: Art, History, Rebellion similarly documented the immediate aftermath of the Detroit rebellion while providing, historically and stylistically, a more capacious context to the ways in which artists have responded to social injustice in the past and present. While documentary photographs of the uprising are included, perhaps the most striking index of the destruction comes via Yvonne Parks Catchings’s mixed-media painting, Blacks Trapped in the City (1973). Here, eight African American individuals—young and old—stand behind a skyline of multicolored apartment buildings. On top of the surface of the canvas, Catchings placed burned wood, broken rocks, and other detritus, most notably a mousetrap, that were recovered on the city street once the uprising was quelled. The burned remains rise diagonally against the stiff verticality of the buildings suggestive of the explosive atmosphere amid the rebellion.

Throughout the Wright Museum’s installation, past and present works were juxtaposed in close proximity, giving new meaning to their respective aesthetic and social concerns. For instance, the viewer looks upon Faith Ringgold’s Flag for the Moon: Die Nigger (1969) alongside John Sims’s Trump Edition (2017). When viewed in relation to Sims’s appropriation of the Confederate flag, Ringgold’s integral contribution to the Black Arts Movement is recontextualized and made to speak differently to an audience living in America post-Charlottesville. Frequently, such as in Sam Durant’s drawing We Are the People #3 (Index) (2003), the contemporary contributions evoked the past not so much for documentary purposes but rather to meditate on the persistence of the icons and slogans derived from the civil rights movement or at least to see them anew. Included alongside sculptures by Melvin Edwards and John Outterbridge’s mixed-media assemblages, Carrie Mae Weems offered the most thoroughgoing rumination on history in her film Constructing History: A Requiem to Mark the Moment (2008). In this elegiac film, Weems uses both found footage as well as theatrical restagings to chart the progression from one atrocity to the next—Hiroshima, the Vietnam War, the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, Patrice Lumumba, and others—until we arrive on the eve of the election of Barack Obama. The film offers no easy answers nor does it see the election of the United States’ first black president as a triumphant moment of national reckoning or healing. Rather, the viewer is held in suspense, meditating on these historic events and their influence on a contingent future. Of course, being on the other side of 2008, to say nothing of 2016, certainly allows one to speculate on the continuation of the narrative.

As these descriptions suggest, while walking through Art of Rebellion and Say It Loud, the viewer engaged with a number of convergences between the past and the present, which worked together to create a historical constellation where one was forced to continuously shuttle between temporalities, alternating between nodes in time that are stitched together by a persistent thread of racial violence, vulnerability, and injustice. In both exhibitions there were moments that rose above this pessimistic historical tradition, I think of the woman rendered in Elizabeth Catlett’s sculpture Home to Black Women Poets (1984) with her defiant fist in the air at DIA or Jamea Richmond-Edwards’s serene and sensitive portrait Levitate (2016) at the Wright Museum. While these moments offered time to consider social progress in the face of racial hostility, one still left the two institutions in a melancholic mood made of equal parts remembering, mourning, and perhaps above all, an enduring desire to hope and imagine the future differently. 

Nicholas Miller
Assistant Professor, Department of Art and Art History, Gettysburg College

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.