WEST ORANGE, NJ — A group of artists and residents came together at the West Orange Public Library on Sunday, Jan. 21, for the opening of “I Too Am America: Reflections of the Civil Rights Movement and Beyond,” an art exhibit that displays images inspired by the civil rights movement and movements that have been influenced by it. Curated by Mansa K. Mussa, the work of 16 different artists lined the walls of the library.
“It speaks to these movements,” Mussa said in a Jan. 18 phone interview with the West Orange Chronicle. “The civil rights movement was a starting point that gave birth to many movements. It created a thread that has gone on for 50 to 60 years.”
Mussa has a piece of his own in the show called “Black Lives Matter.” A mixed media collage, it features a photo of his daughter on a background of the American flag, surrounded by stamps that feature civil rights figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. The piece also features lines from the Declaration of Independence overlaid on the flag.
“I said I would be in it — I’ve never curated a show that I’m not in,” Mussa joked. “And there are pieces that are similar to mine. Cathleen Bristol used the same figures and motifs. There is a wide range of art and artists.”
Cathleen McCoy Bristol’s piece in the show does use the same themes — her acrylic painting features historical figures such as King, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass painted over the colors of the American flag. She used different materials, but the sentiment is the same.
“I used names that automatically come to mind,” Bristol told the Chronicle at the event. “There’s so many people involved, and it began further back than the last 50 years. I wanted to use recognizable figures because they would speak for themselves.”
Library Director Dave Cubie wanted to put together a show for January that would celebrate King and civil rights, so he asked Mussa to curate it in late November. The art was created and brought to the library in less than two months, and will be displayed at New Jersey City University in February.
One of the points that Mussa wanted to get across with “I Too Am America” was the influence the civil rights movement has had on the years that came after it and the artists who are part of the next generation. The first piece viewers see at the exhibit is a photograph by David Booker of King speaking at Newark’s South Side High School — now known as Malcolm X Shabazz High School — just a few weeks before he was assassinated. By displaying the photograph at the entrance, Mussa was able to show the interplay between different generations of artists.
“Visual artists have a wide range of imagery,” he said. “There are artists who create art now and you can speak to now, and you can see that thread of where it came from. There are people who were there (during the civil rights movement) and people who weren’t and I wanted to use both.”
Armisey Smith is one of those artists Mussa refers to as being part of the next generation. Smith’s mixed media collage in the show, called “Sacrifice of Four Black Girls,” is a tribute to the four young girls who were killed in the Birmingham, Ala., church bombing of 1963.
“I wanted to show what happened to African-Americans during that time,” Smith told the Chronicle at the event. “I used symbols like butterflies to show that innocence was crushed and they were transformed into martyrs.”
Smith said creating “Sacrifice of Four Black Girls” for the show gave her a chance to make more political art.
“I hadn’t done political art for a while,” she said. “I did a lot when I was an undergrad but had gotten away from it. I used this to get me back into that, it pushed me to do it.”
Bristol, on the other hand, said that “Some of the Freedom Fighters” is her fifth painting that features the American flag and words of the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and “I Have a Dream” speech.
“I wanted it to be the background of the subject matter,” she said. “This is the foundation of our rights. That’s what I tried to pull together.”
Photos by Amanda Valentovic