One hundred framed photographs cover the walls. Violins hang in the air, mixing with the sound of Nelson Mandela’s voice as he speaks from a TV screen by the door. On another screen, Martin Luther King Jr. leads thousands of men, women and children across a bridge.
The room is swimming in history.
The Freedom Exhibition: Two Countries One Struggle, is one of three exhibitions currently on display at the Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts. Commissioned by the City of Birmingham and Mayor William Bell in recognition of the 50th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, it features the comparative photography of Spider Martin and Peter Magubane. Visitors can compare the Civil Rights Campaign in Alabama with the Anti-Apartheid Movement in South Africa through side-by-side images.
“It’s probably the first time these two photographers have ever been paired,” said Renee Kemp-Rotan, curator of the exhibition. Although the two artists’ works cover separate events from two different countries, the photographers have one thing in common.
“They both were witnesses to history,” said Kemp-Rotan. “One was a white American in the south, the other was a black South African in South Africa, so this really does deal with the notion of camera as witness.”
The photographs are arranged in four categories: “Existing Conditions,” “Planning the Movement,” “Confrontation” and “Free at Last.” The arrangement allows visitors to travel the events of both movements, viewing the similarities and differences between the two events.
Offering glimpses into the many different sides of both events, the images feature snapshots from segregated life and the effects of discrimination, to the peaceful protests and violent conflicts that often ended with the loss of lives.
The exhibition is expected to travel throughout the US before going to South Africa in time for the opening of Mandela’s Freedom Park. Currently, it is part of a larger whole that includes the two other exhibitions now on display at AEIVA.
“The vision was really to have all three exhibitions [be] distinct, but that they would really flow together”, said Lisa Tamiris Becker, director at AEIVA and curator of Willie Cole: Transformations, the second exhibition – more about which can be found here. The exhibition features 15 pieces by the New Jersey artist that mix everyday objects with spiritual, political and historical themes.
“[T]hey’re really potent pieces that speak at all these different levels,” Becker said.
The third exhibition, FOCUS I: Identified, focuses on the commodification of identities in the post-9/11 world. It is the first installation in a new series entitled FOCUS, which will feature pieces from local collectors.
“Because we’re nonprofit and all of our programming is free and open to the public, we rely a lot on these people,” said AEIVA Curator John Fields.
Identified is comprised of pieces from local collectors Jim Sokol and Lydia Cheney, who were the “obvious choice” for the first instillation, according to Fields. “[T]hey collect a lot of works that thematically sync up with Willie Cole and Civil Rights issues, issues of identity.”
Together, the three exhibitions combine imagery from the past with creations from the present to raise questions about humanity’s future and what it really means to be human.
The Freedom Exhibition includes 50 photographs from each of the photographers, highlighting the common themes in the movements of both America and South Africa.
Willie Cole: Transformations features the combination of matches, shoes and other everyday objects with various themes and imagery from different cultures.
FOCUS I: Identified touches on a variety of socio-political subjects including commercialism, spiritualism and capital punishment.
The Freedom Exhibition: Two Countries One Struggle, Willie Cole: Transformations and FOCUS I: Identified will be on display at the Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts until Aug 8. AEIVA is located at 1221 10th Ave. South, Birmingham, Al. All three exhibitions are open to the public.