Black Unity

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

This permanent collection focus show takes its title from Elizabeth Catlett’s 1968 sculpture, Black Unity. 1968 marked a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 which prohibited housing discrimination on the grounds of race, religion, and national origin. With Black Unity as a guiding force, this exhibition looks at works made between 1964 (another important year in the Civil Rights movement) and 2008 (the year the United States elected our first African-American president). Made using a variety of media and techniques, these images explore family, historical figures and events, and cultural touchstones of the American experience. This focus show asks viewers to reflect, celebrate, and consider what it means to be black in America by bringing together works by a group of distinct African-American artists who are all probing this subject in their own, unique ways.

A Warm Summer Evening in 1863 (2008) by Kara WalkerCrystal Bridges Museum of American Art

A Warm Summer Evening in 1863.

In this tapestry, Kara Walker reproduces an etching from an 1863 issue of the newspaper Harper’s Weekly that documents the burning of a “colored orphan asylum.” Infuriated by newly imposed draft requirements during the Civil War, a mob of New Yorkers took to the streets, attacking both black and white innocents. To drive home the emotional reality of this atrocity, Walker superimposed the silhouette of a hanged black woman over this scene, a shocking image that grabs our attention.

Walker’s silhouette of the hanged woman is an example of her ongoing interest in the traditional medium of cut-paper silhouettes. Before the widespread popularity of photography in early nineteenth-century America, paper cutouts of profiles served as a popular medium for portraiture. For the artist, this collision of popular prints and cutouts with the more elite tradition of woven tapestries creates tension: “I liked the irony of transferring this lowly craft into a medium once used for kings and princes,” Walker said,

La Mort des Enfant de Bethel (1964/1965) by Bob ThompsonCrystal Bridges Museum of American Art

La Mort des Enfant de Bethel (Death of the Children of Babel)

Although Bob Thompson takes the title and composition for La Mort des Enfant de Bethel from a 1653 painting by French artist Laurent de la Hyre, he re-imagines the work for a mid-twentieth-century audience. La Hyre depicted a story from the New Testament of the Bible, in which King Herod ordered the murder of all male children near Bethlehem in an attempt to secure his throne. Instead of mimicking La Hyre’s classical rendering of realistic figures and ancient ruins, Thompson takes an innovative approach to the subject by incorporating a loose style and vibrant colors inspired by abstract art and his love of jazz.

In the context of the civil unrest in 1960s America, the biblical reference assumes new significance. The year before Thompson painted this work, a bomb exploded at a church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young girls attending Sunday school. In a kaleidoscopic array of hues, this work features people of many colors, not only black victims. In this way, he frames the struggles of one group of Americans as the responsibility of all Americans.

Liberty Bros. Permanent Daily Circus - Army of Clowns (1995) by Michael Ray CharlesCrystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Liberty Bros. Permanent Daily Circus – Army of Clowns.

Black faced, clad in clown garb, and wielding a hammer, a frightening figure approaches with a manic grimace. To our modern eyes, the image appears racist and insensitive: that, in part, is the artist’s point. This painting is one in a series of fictional posters for the imaginary Liberty Bros. Permanent Daily Circus in which black figures perform stereotypical roles. In this specific work, the artist criticizes the notion that black men are violent figures in society.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, demeaning stereotypes of African Americans appeared throughout popular culture, reducing people to grotesque, childlike, or threatening caricatures. By unearthing and deploying this imagery in his paintings, contemporary artist Michael Ray Charles reveals how America’s disturbing representations of black people in the past continue to influence today’s portrayals and prejudices.

Reinforcing his stance, Charles affixed a penny alongside his signature in the bottom left corner of the painting, as he does in many of his works. This gesture carries a charged meaning: the penny is the coin with lowest value and the only coin that is a different color from the others in the standard American monetary system.

Untitled (Woman standing) (1990) by Carrie Mae WeemsCrystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Carrie Mae Weems' Untitled

A touchstone of shared experience, the kitchen table stands in for moments of everyday life, serving as a scene for meals, family gatherings, and celebrations, as well as for quiet reflection. Carrie Mae Weems pictures the kitchen table as a stage for the performance of womanhood in these photographs. Using herself as the subject, the artist traces an unfolding story of domestic life: love, loss, family responsibility, and feminine strength emerge as overarching themes.

Untitled (Woman and daughter with children) (1990) by Carrie Mae WeemsCrystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Untitled (Woman and phone) (1990, printed 2015.) by Carrie Mae WeemsCrystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Casting herself as the Everywoman at the center of this narrative, Weems seeks to connect her experience as a modern black woman in America with the viewer. Though African Americans typically serve as her primary subjects, in displaying everyday scenes at a family table, Weems wants these figures “to stand for the human multitudes.” To the artist, photography becomes a medium for identifying common experience across color boundaries.

Untitled (Woman brushing hair) (1990) by Carrie Mae WeemsCrystal Bridges Museum of American Art

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The past, present, and future of the Black experience in the United States
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