Article by Cori Wilbur
August 27, 2019
During the 1960s and 70s, amid a torrent of radical social change, many individuals at the center of the civil rights movement took to photography. Black Life: Images of Resistance and Resilience in Southern California, one of San Diego Museum of Art’s upcoming exhibits, showcases 40 black and white prints–selected from thousands and organized into four different sections–of some of these photographers most compelling works. For the exhibit, the museum has collaborated with the San Diego African American Museum of Fine Arts as well as California State University, Northridge, from which the photos were acquired. Thanks to the efforts (and guidance) of Gaidi Finnie, the exhibit has come together beautifully. I had the pleasure of previewing it alongside Finnie and Ramel Wallace, an established San Diego rapper who also works with SDAAMFA.
In one of the first pieces observed in the exhibit, shown above, Guy Crowder captures police congregating outside of the Black Panthers’ Central Avenue office on December 8, 1969, minutes after a raid. This particular moment marked the first ever use of the Los Angeles department’s SWAT team. After the photograph was taken, actions escalated into a gun skirmish that endured for about four hours, mentioned in the photo’s description. “Feed hungry children, free breakfast” reads the office sign. “That’s really what [the Panthers] were about, the free breakfast” Finnie noted as we both looked closely at the photograph.
Also featured on the civil rights wall, is the pairing of two prominent leaders of the civil rights era, both captured by Harry Adams. On top is a meeting of Malcolm X and John Shabazz in 1962; on the bottom is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking at the Second Baptist Church in 1958. Both represented polar opposites: MLK preached for nonviolence and peaceful rebellion, while Malcom X challenged those tactics and acted as a spokesperson for the Black Muslim Faith. However, toward the end of the men’s lives, they nearly swapped places: MLK became much more radicalized while Malcom X engaged in more pacifism after his journey to Mecca. Regardless, both figures met the same fate–Malcom X was assassinated in 1965 and MLK in 1968–resulting in two of too many murders during a decade of violence.
Perhaps one of the most popular images within the exhibit is Crowder’s picture of Muhammed Ali and Stokely Carmichael in 1973. On the sports wall, hang two different images, both shot by Crowder and feature the boxing legend. The other photo, seen above, is a match between Ali and comic legend Richard Pryor (featured again on the entertainment wall) in 1978–another unlikely counterpart for the boxer. Ali, who risked his athletic echelon to stand against the Vietnam War, was the first African-American athlete to buck the system politically, paving the way for athletes–much like Colin Kaepernick today–to use sports as a platform for activism.
Leaving the exhibit, the photograph which left the strongest lingering impact for me, was Charles Williams’ “A Child Holds a Balloon,” included in the daily life quarter and pictured above. The single tear that exists on the child’s cheek, in an otherwise innocuous scene, underlines an emotion many of us are just beginning to understand.
Harry Adams, Charles Williams and Guy Crowder chronicled pivotal moments of our nation’s narrative with their contributions to photography. The social landscape they exemplified, create instances which significance continues to build over time. In the exhibit, the civil rights and entertainment walls face one another, highlighting a parallel between two dominant avenues in which notable African Americans continue to use their voices to advocate for their community on a grander scale. On the walls of the exhibit hang, not just monumental works of art, but a real dialogue that transcends history. And like some often say, life imitates art and history repeats itself.
Black Life: Images of Resilience and Resistance in Southern California opened August 24th and will be on display until December 1st. On August 30 will also be a launch celebration with music and a dance party, to which those of all ages are encouraged to attend.