On December 5, the Birmingham Museum of Art
will open an exhibition designed to open 21st century eyes to an astounding, if little-known phenomenon in the history of African-American art: The Spiral Collective.
Spiral was the name taken by a group of artists, including Romare Bearden, Reggie Gammon, Charles Alston, Norman Lewis, Hale Woodruff, Richard Mayhew, and Emma Amos who came together in New York in the 1960s, and took on the challenge of creating art that responded to the Civil Rights Movement. The collective existed for only a short time, yet each member of the group, working on their own and together, produced powerful works that testified not only to the common themes arising from the struggle for human rights, but to the divergent ways different artists would seek to address those themes.
The exhibition Spiral: Perspectives on An African American Art Collective, is the first time the works of those artists, some created after the collective itself ceased to exist, will be brought together to tell their fascinating story. Co-curated by BMAs curator of the Arts of Africa and the Americas Emily Hanna, PhD, and the University of Alabamas Amalia Amaki, PhD (title), Spiral will feature 18 works notable not only for their place in history, but also for their diversity.
The exhibition will occupy the Museums Bohorfoush Gallery through March 6, 2011. One of the works in the exhibition, Alstons Cry Beloved Country, was purchased by the BMAs support group for African and African-American art, the Sankofa Society. The group voted to buy the painting for the Museum during its annual Soiree earlier this year. At that event, the society honored Spirals only female artist, Emma Amos, and an unsung hero in the Birmingham arts community: Ella Byrd McCain, a long-time educator, and Museum supporter.
Spiral In History
In the summer of 1963 shortly before the historic march on Washington, several African-American painters in New York began meeting to discuss how they and fellow artists could engage in the struggle for Civil Rights. They decided to call their group Spiral, inspired by the Archimedean spiral, which from a starting point moves outward embracing all directions, yet constantly upward. Founding members of the group were Romare Bearden and Hale Woodruff. They were joined by Charles Alston, Norman Lewis, Richard Mayhew, Reginald Gammon, Merton Simpson, Emma Amos, Alvin Hollingsworth, Felrath Hines, Earl Miller, and William Majors.
Their meetings were spirited and often contentious as they debated the question of black aesthetics, the issue of race in the art world, and their commitment to and effective engagement in the Civil Rights movement, said curator Emily Hanna. Almost all of the artists had come from a tradition of figural art, and were exploring some form of abstraction. Each resolved the problem of form and content differently some referring directly to the movement in their work, and others responding more broadly, some with direct or indirect references to Africa as a source of empowerment. The group held one exhibition in 1965, entitled Black and White.
This exhibition presents the work of seven artists who were members of Spiral: Bearden, Woodruff, Alston, Lewis, Gammon, Mayhew, and Amos. Reginald Gammons painting Freedom Now was in the original Black and White exhibition, and the other seventeen works are from the period of Spiral, or the decade that followed. Although the collective eventually dissolved, its formation allowed for a shared response to the enormous energy and courage that marked the struggle for Civil Rights in the early 1960s, Hanna said. The paintings that remain allow us to consider the visual response of African-American artists to one of the most pivotal points in U.S. history.