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3 Black Women Photographers Capture the Legacy of the Civil Rights Movement

From Malcolm X to Madame Mama Bush, these photos offer varying visions of how the Civil Rights Movement affected black life.

It has been five decades since the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Martin Luther King, Jr. presented his Dream. In the decades since, artists have presented visions of the black condition to signal how, since the 1960s, America has mostly lived in-between that dream and the realities of race and life that existed before the Civil Rights Movement. In a new group exhibition at James Barron Art, Fifty Years After: Gordon Parks, Carrie Mae Weems, Mickalene Thomas, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Weems, Thomas and Frazier, three black women photographers, show photographs that contrast with Gordon Parks’ post-war reportage from the front lines of the movement.

Gordon Parks, American Gothic, Washington, D.C., 1942. Gelatin silver print. 20 x 16 inches. Courtesy of the Gordon Parks Foundation

The exhibition opens with a black-and-white photograph of Malcolm X. Taken by Parks in 1963, it features the civil rights leader’s figure emerging out of darkness, addressing his people. Parks’ “American Gothic,” inspired by Grant Wood’s 1930 painting of a farmer and his wife standing in front of the American Gothic House, shows a lone black woman holding a broom and a mop, standing in front an American flag. Wood said he painted the white farmers in his portrait because he thought those were the kind of people that should live in that house. Parks, it seems, took his photograph to suggest the kind of people he thought should be able to move around freely in America—evoking First Lady Michelle Obama’s recent remarks that she wakes up “every morning in a house that was built by slaves.” The Parks image also echoes President Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech—“A house divided against itself cannot stand”—which sought to imagine an America without a race problem. The Parks photographs mounted in Fifty Years After capture the then-prevailing feelings of those involved in the Civil Rights Movement, and now, of those marching, proclaiming “Black Lives Matter.” Justice cannot wait.

Carrie Mae Weems, Kitchen Table Portfolio, 2003. Courtesy of James Barron Art

The photography practices of Carrie Mae Weems, Mickalene Thomas, and LaToya Ruby Frazier have all, in their own ways, followed in the footsteps of Parks', documenting black life in the decades following the Civil Rights Movement. Included in the exhibition are works that focus on the relationships these black women have with their families and communities. A portfolio of platinum prints from Carrie Mae Weems’ Kitchen Table Series shows a black family over the course of a lifetime. Mickalene Thomas’ portraits of female friends and family muses askew on couches compliment Weems' kitchen table-focused photographs. LaToya Ruby Frazier’s The Notion of Family series expands the idea to include her entire childhood community of Braddock Pennsylvania. Fifty Years After includes Frazier 12 photolithographs picturing a steel community trying to save their hospital.

LaToya Ruby Frazier, Where Is Emergency Care from the series Campaign for Braddock Hospital (Save our Community Hospital), 2011, portfolio of 12 prints, photolithographs and silkscreens, wooden frames, 20 x 17 inches each (framed). Courtesy of James Barron Art

The photographs presented in Fifty Years After offers varying visions of how the Civil Rights Movement affected black life. The freedom it spun is seen in Thomas’ "Madame Mama Bush," an exacting photo of a black woman cast as a modern-day Venus. It rebuffs the racial hierarchies found, for instance, in Edouard Manet’s Olympia. It also examines, through Parks, Frazier, and Weems’ photographs, black stereotyping, women’s rights, environmental rights, and ultimately, questions surrounding the value of black life—issues that still persist.

Mickalene Thomas, Madame Mama Bush, 2012, c-print, 40 x 60 inches (framed). Courtesy of James Barron Art

Fifty Years After: Gordon Parks, Carrie Mae Weems, Mickalene Thomas, LaToya Ruby Frazier continues through October 16 at James Barron Art. Click here for more information.

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