The Art of Communication

CHAPTER 5: Art and words for social change

Combining words and images can be a powerful way to reclaim forgotten histories, document social change, and address political issues. Pictures and texts can work in conjunction to give documentary weight to the historical claim they present. They can interact in fluid, poetic ways to create new visual motifs to represent the traditions or the past. Words can also be implied, rather than rendered in a visible way, in works that make reference to literacy, storytelling, and oral histories. In some cases, words can be censored, leaving behind a loud, compelling silence.

Quipus 58 B

Jorge Eielson
Lima, Peru, 1924 - 2006, Milan, Italy

Quipus 58 B
Canvas and acrylic
100.7 x 104.1 x 20.3 cm (39 5/8 x 41 x 8 in.)
Gift of John and Barbara Duncan, 1971

Nudos Que no son nudos Y nudos que sólo son Nudos Poet and visual artist Jorge Eielson was interested in exploring resonances between material, form, and communication. "Quipus 58 B" is from a series of paintings / constructions that feature knotted canvas inspired by Inca "quipus." Consisting of intricately knotted strings laced together, "quipus" conveyed to the Inca a wide range of information. Spanish colonization, however, eradicated the specialized knowledge required to interpret them. Eielson’s oversized and aestheticized knot evokes this loss of cultural memory while paying homage to Inca civilization. In the poem above Eielson wrote, “Knots / That are not knots / And knots that are only / Knots.”

Wanted Poster Series #6

Charles White
Chicago, Illinois, 1918 - 1979, Los Angeles, California

Wanted Poster Series #6
Oil wash brushed and stenciled with masking out over traces of graphite pencil
149.9 x 68.6 x 5.1 cm (59 x 27 x 2 in.)
Gift of Susan G. and Edmund W. Gordon to the units of Black Studies and the Blanton Museum of Art at The University of Texas at Austin

This drawing is part of the "Wanted Poster" series, a group of more than twenty works inspired by pre-Civil War posters advertising slave auctions and rewards for runaway slaves. Quoting Article IV, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution, the stenciled text is taken from what is commonly referred to as the Fugitive Slave Clause, which authorized the capture and return of runaway slaves. The sum “30,000” and the word “VALUABLE” frame the figures and mimic pre-Civil War posters. The separation of the child and woman points to the ways that slavery severed both familial and cultural ties. By using the confederate and American flags as his background, White highlighted the continued legacy of institutionalized slavery in the United States. As White explained: “During the past decade the black people of this country have waged a heroic militant struggle for their fundamental rights. As a result they have on numerous occasions been jailed or in some instances become fugitives. I see many parallels between the period of slavery and now.”

La maestra rural [The Rural Teacher]

Diego Rivera
Guanajuato, Mexico, 1886 - 1957, Mexico City

La maestra rural [The Rural Teacher]
40.3 cm x 57.9 cm (15 7/8 in. x 22 13/16 in.)
Archer M. Huntington Museum Fund, 1986

"The Rural Teacher," based on a scene from Diego Rivera’s monumental frescoes at the Secretariat of Public Education in Mexico City, highlights the complexities of the role of female teachers in the aftermath of the revolution. Here we see a woman of indigenous descent teaching under the watchful eye of a Federal guard. Such teachers worked with extremely limited resources to reduce the ninety percent illiteracy rate and inform the people of their rights as citizens. Since these rights included claims to ancestral lands, anti-revolutionary forces were a constant threat to this rural education program. Women who pursued this new opportunity for socially engaged work were also putting themselves at grave risk of violence.

This art object can not be displayed
Honor Roll

May Stevens
Quincy, Massachusetts, 1924 - 2019, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Honor Roll
108 cm x 91.4 cm (42 1/2 in. x 36 in.)
Purchase through the Amon G. Carter Art Acquisition Fund and Archer M. Huntington Museum Fund, and made possible by generous support from Alessandra Manning-Dolnier and Kurt Dolnier in memory of Ruth Seay, Charles Irvin, Jeanne and Michael Klein, Anthony Meier, Fredericka and David Middleton, and an anonymous donor, 2015

"Honor Roll" refers to the academic distinction usually bestowed upon students who excel at school. In the context of this 1963 canvas, however, the phrase takes on profound implications. The canvas honors the bravery of seven young African American men, women, and children who were among the first to attempt to integrate schools in the south in the early 1960s. May Stevens renders their names in childlike lettering that looks like it was carved into a tree or wet cement, in the hope that we might remember them. Stevens, a white artist, credits her passion for civil rights in part to the friendship she and her husband developed with Charles White, the virtuosic African American draftsman whose work is on view nearby. When Stevens first exhibited this painting at a New York gallery in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. contributed a brief but powerful introduction to the catalogue that accompanied it: "The men and women who rode the Freedom Buses through Alabama, who walked in Montgomery, who knelt in prayer in Albany, who hold hands and sing We Shall Overcome Someday in the face of hostile mobs—their acts cry out for songs to be sung by them and pictures to be painted of them." Who was Clyde Kennard? Nineteen sixty-three was a watershed year in the history of school desegregation. During that year, James Meredith became the first African American to graduate from the University of Mississippi. May Stevens’ painting was likely inspired by the tragic story of his fellow freedom fighter Clyde Kennard, an unsung hero of the civil rights movement. In the late 1950s, Kennard attempted to enroll at Mississippi Southern College for his final year of college in order to be close to his widowed mother and to help run her chicken farm. The FBI, local police, and Mississippi Southern College did everything they could to dissuade him from applying and referred to him as an “integration agitator.” When he remained undeterred and attempted to apply to the school for the third year in a row, they resorted to framing him for crimes he did not commit. In 1960, after ten minutes of deliberation, an all-white jury sentenced Kennard to seven years in high-security prison for stealing five bags of chicken feed, on the basis of testimony by an illiterate white teenager. Placed in a high-security prison, Kennard was forced to perform manual labor in spite of developing colon cancer. Shocked by the travesty of his sentencing for a crime he did not commit and by the brutal physical labor he was being forced to endure, the NAACP and Medgar Evers took up Kennard’s case. In 1963, the governor of Mississippi released him for fear that he would become a martyr if he died in prison. Kennard died shortly thereafter, on July 4.

Image credit:
Diego Rivera
La maestra rural [The Rural Teacher], 1932 (detail)
The Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin
Archer M. Huntington Museum Fund, 1986