A new exhibition opens at the Brooklyn Museum today that speaks to the convergence of art and activism. “Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties” offers a look at that transformative era through painting, sculpture, graphics and photography that capture the struggle for racial justice.
On Tuesday, March 4, civil rights leaders and artists gathered at the museum for a first look at the show and a discussion about what’s changed since the 1960s and what, frustratingly, has not. “We are all still writing the story of civil rights in this country,” Ford Foundation President Darren Walker reminded the audience. “We know that art is not a byproduct of a fairer, more just society. It is a precursor for it...an indispensable, constituent element of it, and essential to it.”
The discussion that followed, moderated by journalist Maria Hinojosa, built on this idea. Melvin Edwards, an acclaimed artist who has a sculpture in the exhibition; playwright Katori Hall, author of “The Mountaintop,” Favianna Rodriguez, an interdisciplinary artist and director of CultureStrike; and Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative; reflected on their own experiences as artists and activists, and the crucial role of artists in the pursuit of truth, justice and reconciliation.
For Rodriquez, who works on migrant rights among other issues, art has long been a way to humanize stories. Growing up in Oakland, CA, “art was a way for us to say, ‘this is who we really are’ and to claim our voice,” she said. Edwards talked about disparities in the art world, and Hall discussed her experience “battling the politics of omission.” The exhibit speaks to all of this, Stevenson said, because it “gives voice to the things you don’t see being given much space in our conversation on race and justice.”
“Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties,” is on view at the Brooklyn Museum through July 6. We hope the provocative works it showcases will spark further conversations—and more art.