In honor of Black History Month, I invite you to explore these virtual museum exhibitions that capture the historic achievements and artistic creations of Black people in America.
This year – as the pandemic and civil unrest has brought the United States’ racial reckoning to the fore, while sparking a record number of national protests – finding ways to be a part of the dialogue and solution are more important than ever. In response, museums and cultural institutions across the country are presenting virtual and interactive online exhibitions that focus on chronicling the Black experience through photographs, short stories, videos and conceptual works. From Black politicians to visual artists and poets, the people featured in these exhibitions allow us to celebrate the countless individuals from past and present who have made history by defying, persevering, influencing, uplifting, creating and continuing to fight to improve the lives of Black people in this country. As James Baldwin, the subject of the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s exhibition, once wrote in a 1962 essay for the New York Times: “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Standing up for Change: African American Women and the Civil Rights Movement
The exhibition Standing up for Change: African American Women and the Civil Rights Movement, organized by the National Women’s History Museum and presented through Google Arts and Culture, traces the history of African American women’s fight for civil rights. Beginning with the 19th-century, the NWHM examines the positions Black women held at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement: “They resisted slavery. They spoke out against racism. They established women’s clubs to improve conditions for African Americans. They worked in politics and journalism, organized Black labor and supported education. In the 20th-century, they formed the backbone of the modern Civil Rights Movement. African American women were the critical mass, the grassroots leaders challenging America to embrace justice and equality for all.” Comprehensively organized and illustrated with powerful and historically significant photographs, Standing up for Change shows the grassroot efforts that ultimately led to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act – the most comprehensive civil rights legislation ever enacted by Congress – and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, through the persistent work of African American women.
Chez Baldwin, presented by the National Museum of African American History and Culture, is a colorful, powerful lens into James Baldwin’s life and work from his house in the South of France. In the last 16 years of the prolific writer’s life, from 1971 to 1987, the artist lived in a home in St. Paul de Vence – a building that served as a social center for intellectuals from around the world. The locals affectionately referred to his home as “Chez Baldwin,” which was a stone house wrapped in lively foliage. In an interview with Architectural Digest in 1987, Baldwin speaks of his domicile: “It’s a fine stone house, about twelve rooms, overlooking the valley and at the foot of the village…It is, also, a very old house, which means that there is always something in need of repair or renewal or burial. But this exasperating rigor is good for the soul, for it means that one can never suppose one’s work is done.” The house was a part of Baldwin’s daily life, and the exhibition showcases just that – including essays and personal objects (an inkwell, passport and address book) that bring us into the artist’s home – and the last years of his life.
Working Together at the Whitney Museum of American Art showcases the origins of the Kamoinge Workshop – a collective of Black photographers who began working in New York City in 1964. “Kamoinge,” defined as “a group of people acting together,” in the language of the Kikuyu people of Kenya, served as the collective’s ideal as they met to share not only professional knowledge but friendship. The exhibition features around 140 photographs by 14 members and focuses on the highly significant work of the founding members during the first two decades of their practice – providing “a powerful and poetic perspective of the 1960s and 1970s during the heart of the Black Arts Movement.” The extensive exhibition’s photographs are enthralling – reflecting a time of dramatic upheaval as well as the artists’ commitment “to photography’s power and status as an independent art form.”
In Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America
In Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America, the New Museum presents the artworks of 37 artists to address “the concept of mourning, commemoration and loss as a direct response to the national emergency of racist violence experienced by Black communities across America.” The exhibition was originally conceived by Okwui Enwezor in 2018, who, at the time, was organizing a series of public talks for Harvard University on the topic, with a focus on contemporary art. Before his death in March 2019, Enwezor brought on artist Glenn Ligon to serve as the exhibition’s advisor. Ligon contributed his art and expertise to the exhibition, alongside a curatorial advisory group that worked diligently to bring Enwezor’s vision to life. Enwezor wrote in his initial narrative for the exhibition, “with the media’s normalization of white nationalism, the last two years have made clear that there is a new urgency to assess the role that artists, through works of art, have played to illuminate the searing contours of the American body politic.” The exhibition features video, painting, sculpture, installation, photography, sound and performance in tandem with significant historical works.
Photos from the Civil Rights Movement
Atlanta’s High Museum of Art holds one of the most important collections of photographs of the Civil Rights Movement in America. This online exhibit, presented through Google Arts and Culture, reveals just a portion of their collection, which includes more than 300 photographs documenting the social protest movement that forever changed the lives of Americans. From the Freedom Rides to the powerful demonstrations of the late 1960s, civil rights activists worked tirelessly to bring an end to institutionalized racism and inequality. Visionary leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Congressman John Lewis are featured alongside countless unsung heroes. The works in this collection capture the courage and tenacity of individuals who challenged the status quo through nonviolence and the strength of their convictions. With protests and demands for equality still happening across the United States today, images like these resonate more than ever.
The African American Museum in Philadelphia describes Rendering Justice as “an unflinching depiction of contemporary America.” Expansive and illuminating, the artworks display “varied responses to the displacement of bodies and revocation of autonomy entailed in incarceration.” The exhibition documents how formerly incarcerated artists search for identity and agency as they re-enter society. Rendering Justice responds to recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless other Black lives senselessly taken by police, which in turn ignited a global uprising against the nation’s criminal justice system. As a response to this reckoning, Rendering Justice exhibits the art of “the people and perspectives that are often hidden by racism, criminalization and other forms of oppression” and includes video, sculpture, painting, photography, installations, poetry readings and performances.
Portraits of African Americans
The National Portrait Gallery’s collection comprises more than 1,000 portraits of African American historymakers. From 18th-century poet Phillis Wheatley to former President Barack Obama, the artworks depict African Americans whose lives and achievements have contributed to the development of and necessary change in this country. This online exhibition, presented through Google Arts and Culture, offers a detailed look at the extraordinary people who despite being subjected to various forms of racism, were able to persevere. These singers, musicians, athletes, politicians, scientists, visual artists and educators broke down racial barriers that earned them national and international acclaim, shaped our culture and continue to inspire us today.