Currently, the Blanton Museum of Art is holding Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties, a special exhibition including artworks ranging in media from paintings to photographs to textiles. Through this experience, I was able to enter into the Civil Rights Era, which can be hard to grasp today. Yet, the effects of inequality fought during that time can still be seen today.
Through sociological lenses, I was reminded of the history of negative social effects on African Americans during that time and today. Two pieces of art, varying in medium, caught my attention during my tour of the exhibition due to their connections to two important events of the Civil Rights Movement: the 1898 Plessy V Ferguson court ruling which upheld the ‘separate, but equal’ standards of segregation and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Both were important events and also hold relevance to the racial inequalities in the health of African Americans today.
The piece Hold, Separate, but Equal (1969) by Malcolm Bailey resembles a schematic drawing of a slave ship with an overview and cross section of the boat. Inside the outlines of the ship are strong, uniform white and black figures segregated by color. Placed one after the other, a few are in a constricted sitting position while most are prone. The sections are labeled A, B, C, D, and F, with the E section missing. This representation of a slave ship is expressed on a blue background like the ocean that the ship would have traveled on. Bailey alludes to the ways enslaved Africans were seen as products or cargo, rather than human beings. The missing E section made me consider the people who did not survive the trip to the Americas on the slave ship. Given the historical continuity of racist violence, the missing section could be related to those who died during the Middle Passage or in the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement.
As mentioned before, the piece is ironically titled after the famous 1898 Plessy VS Ferguson, the controversial court case on segregation. Importantly, this ruling was overturned by the outcome of Brown VS Board of Education in 1954. Yet the visual imagery of the ship represents another time altogether, the slave trade era. By merging elements from different moments, the artist connects these events and histories to bring light to the continuous injustices African Americans have faced since the Middle Passage, including the Great Migration and the struggle for civil rights to the present day.
Through Bailey’s painting I can sense different histories that have affected African Americans since they arrived in the Americas on the slave ships and the pivotal moments of the Civil Rights Era. These histories have contributed to the negative health disparities established by the social location of African Americans today based on the sociologically informed model of health and mortality (Cavanagh, Week 5A). Based on this model, the social location such as socioeconomic status (SES), education, and income are “important contributors to racial differences in disease” (Williams & Jackson 2005). These in return affect health practices such as smoking, diet, physical activity and those who have a lower SES are “less-likely to reduce high-risk behavior,” and experience higher chronic stress levels (Williams & Jackson, 2005). Bailey’s painting represents the inequality that African Americans have experienced since they came to the US, and reflects the ways the model demonstrates the separate, but not so equal health outcomes.
Another visually stimulating piece from the exhibit, is Red April painted by Sam Gilliam in 1970. This abstract piece is on stained canvas and brings out feelings of chaos through the vibrant red paint splatters. These splatters resemble blood with tones of yellow, blue, and brown in the background. The artist made this piece in response to Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, two years after the crucial event occurred. I found this piece to be not only a personal reaction, but also a work of art to represent the feelings many experienced going through mourning the death of a prominent civil rights leader who was taken too soon. The uncertainty of the future and anger of the event is translated by the abstract style of the artist.
Gilliam was known as a color field painter who has stated “I’ve learned to get rid of rules, which is the best form of creation” (Biography: Sam Gilliam). King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee where he was attending a strike of sanitation workers.The painting reflects the chaos and stressful death of Martin Luther King Jr. It parallels the feelings and reactions to violence still affecting African Americans today and taking a drastic toll on their well-being. In the racial disparities of health for African Americans, social aspects affect the negative health outcomes including higher rates of heart disease to cancer. Other factors include higher homicide rates and residential segregation, which is a “neglected, but enduring legacy of racism in the United States” (William & Jackson, 2005). In fact, “racism acts as a classic chronic stressor,” and these “social determinants,” such as residential segregation are the social forces that have created racial disparities in health for African Americans (Drexler, 2007).
Although there are still health disparities affecting African Americans disproportionately, the Civil Rights movement allowed for some reform and freedom that has led to better health outcomes than if the movement did not happen at all. The artwork of the exhibit was diverse in its presentation, but each captured the social injustice happening during the Civil Rights Era. The events that took place during that time have impacted the health of African Americans then and their effects can still be seen today. The artists in Witness present that moment in creative, thought-provoking ways with different views of a controversial time. Through the artwork, we are able to become aware of the social inequalities still present today that we often forget in our day-to-day lives. Significantly, the art in this exhibition reflected on social issues considered to be history, yet the effects of racism on the health of African Americans continues to be very apparent.
Cassie Davis is a Senior Anthropology major from Shreveport, Louisiana who plans to attend graduate school for Public Health in the fall. You can catch her enjoying live music throughout Austin, hiking in the greenbelt, or painting in her backyard in her spare time. One of her treasured memories is being able to admire her favorite painting, Picasso’s Guernica in Barcelona.