A few weeks ago, a visitor came up to me after I had finished leading a tour of Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties at the Blanton. He overheard me speaking in detail about Jack Whitten’s King’s Wish (Martin Luther’s Dream), a large painting that teeters delicately between abstraction and figuration, bearing a fiery hot palette, and made after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. He trailed our tour group in the last few galleries of the show, which is often the case with viewers who are curious enough to want to know more.
The man extended his hand, a smile on his face. He pulled me over to the ‘Beloved Community’ gallery, which is filled with black-and-white images of the communities directly involved or affected by the Civil Rights Movement—a Richard Avedon photo of Julian Bond marching with members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); Danny Lyon’s iconic image of Bob Dylan singing to a group of African Americans behind a SNCC office in Greenwood, Mississippi; official White House photos by Yoichi Okamoto of LBJ having tea with MLK in the Oval Office. He said it was his favorite gallery in the show. Not for the black-and-white photos, however, but rather for the colorful Romare Bearden collage at its center.
“Growing up in North Carolina in the sixties, my parents always told me about Romare Bearden. They would show me images of his work in books so that I would know he was important—that black artists could be famous… I have never seen his work in person until now.”
He was beaming from cheek to cheek, his head turning back and forth between my face and those rendered in Bearden’s collage. The sound of Nina Simone’s fierce, impassioned singing bled in from the next gallery as we spoke about the work. He stood there with his arms crossed, shaking his head from time to time, as if in disbelief. The man had waited his whole life to see this artist’s work, and now he was finally standing in front of it. His eyes were full and wet when he thanked me, before walking slowly into the next gallery, following the sound of Nina’s piano and her pleas for peace.
This was one of my favorite moments during Witness—when the impact of these artworks, and the tumultuous period they came out of, became fully realized for the viewer in front of my eyes. And there were dozens more like this—more moments than I can count. Last week a high school student wearing a #BlackLivesMatter shirt chased me down in the Blanton atrium to tell me the show was “really cool.” What I find to be even cooler is that a museum can be a safe space for visitors of all kinds to safely and elegantly unpack and digest some of the most difficult issues of the day. A leader of the Austin chapter of the Black MBA Association reminded me Friday that, “we cannot know where we’re going unless we know where we have already been.”
Witness has been a transformative exhibition for the Blanton, and for months our visitors have been tweeting at us with #WitnessVoices and sharing their experience of race and beauty in contemporary American culture. Visitors with lived experiences of discrimination in the 1960s have passed through our galleries next to wide-eyed elementary school kids with questions about the nature of injustice, each just as moved and as curious. And with the Blanton’s new major gift of 20 works by artist Charles White, scholarship on his work and American art from the African diaspora will continue to flourish at the University of Texas well after Witness has come and gone.
On that note: Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties closes in less than a week, on view through Sunday, May 10. If you haven’t had a chance to see this exhibition of important and groundbreaking work, now is the time!
Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art
Managing Curator, Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties