Art serves as a mechanism for feeling, for thinking, for healing, for change. Art provokes thought and conversation. Art tells a visual story, a depiction of a person, place or emotion, whether figurative or abstracted, making one look a little bit closer. Art is also one person’s perspective, every canvas, every sculpture, every photograph unique. 

VincentSmith"The Fire Next Time," Vincent Smith. Photo courtesy of the DIA.

In the two concurrent art exhibitions that opened July 23rd at the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History to commemorate the events that transpired in Detroit over five days in July 1967 that resulted in 43 people dead (33 African Americans and 10 whites), artwork is a visual storyteller, lending historical context as artists used their mediums to document, to grieve, to process, and to rebel. The addition of recently created pieces referencing Black Lives Matter and recent victims of racial violence signal how far is still to come.

ECtlett2017Homage to Black Women Poets, Elizabeth Catlett. Photo courtesy of the DIA.In the larger context of the community-wide conversation around the summer of 1967 presented in partnership with the Detroit 67 Project and the Detroit Historical Society, these exhibits stand apart. While reminding those who lived through the estimated $287-323 million of damage to homes and stores, thousands of which burned to the ground, never to be rebuilt, it is also about educating younger generations that there are multiple perspectives to history, and how Detroit continues to rebuild 50 years later. 

“Before there was a cell phone, before there was a body camera, there were artists,” Juanita Moore, President and CEO of the Wright, reminds museum-goers at Say It Loud: Art, History, Rebellion. Referencing James Brown’s “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud,” which became an anthem of black empowerment after its release in 1968, the Wright’s exhibit, which takes place both within the museum as well as on its lawn, showcases artwork aiming to place the Detroit rebellion—or the “12th Street Riot” as the museum’s introductory text refers to the event—within a national context that included similar racially motivated uprisings in Watts, Harlem and Newark. 

Both exhibits feature contemporary African-American artists like David Hammons, Benny Andrews and Allie McGhee, whose works directly reflect the political climate in the 1960s. At the Wright, two mixed media assemblages from Dr. Yvonne Parks Catchings incorporate physical remnants she collected from Detroit buildings that burned during the uprisings, forever encapsulating these objects. 

Outside the Wright Museum are clusters of solar-light powered bulbs, beckoning from the street to come closer. They draw the viewer towards the historical facts on display, including statistics and quotes from politicians in Detroit in 1967, thus teeing up the context for the exhibit indoors and at the neighboring institutions, as well as bringing one physically to the museum, inviting those nearby to come and take a closer look. 

United We StandUnited We Stand, Charles McGee. Photo courtesy of The Wright Museum.One year ago, the Wright unveiled Charles McGee’s 20-foot tall outdoor sculpture of abstracted figures interspersed in black and white. Moore says United We Stand serves as a “visual mission statement” to the museum, and the work by the 92-year-old Detroit artist, whose recent mural commission nearby in Detroit’s Capitol Park hovers above the Woodward landscape, establishes the museum's narrative from an artist who has seen Detroit rise and fall, and rise again. 

The DIA’s Art of Rebellion: Black Art of the Civil Rights Movement takes a more expansive art historical view of how art can be a mechanism for action. Whether in Norman Lewis’ Untitled (Alabama), where one can make out the outlines of Klan figures, Vincent Smith’s The Fire Next Time, or Elizabeth Catlett’s Homage to Black Women Poets, fist extending towards the sky, curator Valerie Mercer explores how African-American artists in the 1960s and '70s—both independently and working in collectives—used political events to shape their artistic narrative. 

By putting pen to paper, brush to canvas, or lyrics to music, art tells a story of not only what happened in Detroit 50 years ago, but of a larger movement. By incorporating local artists and collectors as well as recent commissions, the DIA and the Wright are not only sharing a narrative of a single moment in time, but expanding the conversation around American art over the past five decades. 

Art of Rebellion: Black Art of the Civil Rights Movement will be on view at the Detroit Institute of Arts through October 22nd. Say It Loud: Art, History, Rebellion is on view at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History through January 2nd.

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