Brooklyn Museum Exhibition: Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties

Situated on the first floor of the Brooklyn Museum, Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties serves to paint a rich picture of the Civil Rights movement through the display of mixed media of black artists of the era.  Through the juxtaposition of music, paintings, and politics, the exhibition succeeds in creating a multi-dimensional snapshot of evolving Black identity in the 1960s.

Intrinsically, when we talk about Black identity, we are talking about American identity and the push and pull between the want for liberation and the desire for assimilation into the conventional consciousness of white America.  Norman Rockwell’s New Kids in the Neighborhood (Negro in the Suburbs) depicts this struggle for assimilation into the American mainstream.  This is highlighted through the seemingly innocent portrayal of the children’s interactions; although they are of different races, they are all children.  Furthermore, the integration of items such as the baseball mitt, demonstrate a pastime shared by all children.  Also, the inclusion of such American iconographical symbols, serves to highlight this desire for many African Americans to be recognized as equal American citizens.

Part of the exhibition also addresses education and politics.  The Door (Admissions Office) by David Hammons addresses the issue of Black exclusion from public schools.  This work features a body print of black ink on door—the color is a blatant marker of race discrimination and the lone door represents false hope as the threshold of the frame leads to nowhere.  Conversely, Mary Steven’s Honor Roll, which depicts a list of names of distinguished students in a child-like scrawl, demonstrates the simultaneous optimism and skepticism towards the education system for Black Americans.

One reason why the exhibition is so successful in depicting the 1960s is because it represents different communities that were a part of the Civil Rights movement.  The curators made sure not to generalize the artists and goals.  Part of the exhibition focuses on the women of the Civil Rights movement, featuring videos of Nina Simone as well as the works of other artists.  It also highlights the “Black is Beautiful” movement, a political art movement that emphasized the positive and negative space of the color black.

It is great to see a historically inclusive and accurate account of an important marker of American history.  And it is refreshing to see that the Civil Rights movement was not essentialized.  I think that the Brooklyn Museum had an excellent exhibition.  Check out more about the exhibit at

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