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Bear ‘Witness’ at the Brooklyn Museum of Art

MAITEFA ANGAZA | 7/10/2014, 4:28 p.m.

Responding to popular demand and critical acclaim, the Brooklyn Museum of Art has extended “Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties” until July 13. If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor. It’s not every day you’ll see such a wealth of artistic talent and perspective dedicated to this monumental movement.

Marking the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act, “Witness” features 103 arresting works by 66 painters, sculptors, photographers and graphic artists. Identity, rights, resistance and liberation are the themes that inspired these bold and imaginative pieces. Artists used the languages of figural work, assemblage, abstraction, pop art, minimalism and more, as their tools of expression. The work is presented via various themes: Integrate/Educate; American Nightmare; Presenting Evidence; Politicizing Pop; Black Is Beautiful; Sisterhood; Global Liberation; and Beloved Community.

Among the exhibiting artists are Elizabeth Catlett, Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Charles White, Faith Ringgold, Gordon Parks, Norman Rockwell, Bruce Davidson, Sam Gilliam, Betye Saar, Andy Warhol, David Hammonds, Barbara Chase-Riboud, Richard Avedon, Roy De Carava and Barkley Hendricks.

We spoke with Kellie Jones, who curated the exhibition, along with the museum’s Teresa A. Carbone. A native New Yorker and Brooklyn resident, Jones is a Columbia University art professor and author of “EyeMinded: Living and Writing Contemporary Art.” She is also the daughter of the late Amiri Baraka, a seminal figure of the Black Arts Movement. She is honored and excited both by the opportunity to put this show together and by the public response.

“The Civil Rights Movement was a climate of courage,” she said. “It’s great to carry on this legacy of my family and fantastic that the Brooklyn Museum of Art made a commitment to the theme of activism this season, so we have ‘Witness’ showing, along with Ai Weiwei and Swoon.”

The museum programmed months of dialogue, film screenings and performances around the exhibition, and its gift shop carries several “Witness” related souvenirs. What keeps word-of-mouth buzzing about this show, however, is its beauty and audacity. It’s a treat for the senses, with thought-provoking surprises at every turn. An intriguing aspect is the inclusion of White artists, such as Norman Rockwell, Andy Warhol, May Stevens, Richard Avedon and Frank Stella. Although the Rockwell painting is a famous one, most visitors will be surprised by some of the other artists who turned their gaze this way.

“There have always been friends of Black freedom who were not Black,” says Jones. “The Civil Rights Movement itself was integrated. There were the Freedom Riders, SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] and people like Bob Dylan. One photograph is of Cheney, Goodman and Schwerner, who gave up their lives struggling for African American freedoms. People have been surprised not only by the ethnicities of some of the artists, but also the diversity in style and how that comes together and makes a cogent statement, even in that diversity.”

Jones says that people of all ages and from all walks of life are finding value and connection in the exhibition. Her niece’s Girl Scout troop came by and, because they know the story of Ruby Bridges, they were familiar with the Norman Rockwell painting in the show. She says that current activists working on issues concerning prison reform, LGBTQ rights, income inequality and immigration, see the show and witness the seeds of their own activism. Civil Rights and Black Power movement veterans also come to relive and reflect.

“It’s been exciting to have Congressman John Lewis and Julian Bond, who were part of this moment, come by and identify people in the photos,” said Jones. “We know that some of these issues are unresolved from the Civil Rights Movement. It’s great to see how activism and art continue to be in dialogue.”

“Witness” hours this week are Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Friday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., and admission has a suggested contribution. The Brooklyn Museum of Art is located at 200 Eastern Parkway. The 2 and 3 trains stop at the Eastern Parkway/Brooklyn Museum station right outside the building.