“Dr. King’s policy was that nonviolence would achieve the gains for black people in the United States. His major assumption was that if you are nonviolent, if you suffer, your opponent will see your suffering and will be moved to change his heart. That’s very good. He only made one fallacious assumption: In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. The United States has none.”
— Stokely Carmichael
These resignation-laden words of Stokely Carmichael, filled with frustration and pragmatism, greeted me as I arrived at Johnson County Community College’s outdoor/indoor installation of renowned photographer Sheila Pree Bright’s “#1960 Now.”
Experiencing “#1960Now” when I did was somewhat poignant and surreal. It was Election Day, and the outside world was rife with tension and apprehension. Meanwhile, the pandemic had turned the campus of JCCC into a well-manicured ghost town. I saw four people during my entire visit. Orange and brown leaves floated down from autumn trees and adorned the grass and pathways. The cool fall breeze silently slithered between buildings and walkways. And it was in this peaceful and breezy silence that a single speaker pierced the air with these words of Stokely Carmichael as well as others. It was almost a reminder that no matter how good or well things seem to be in America, regardless of how low unemployment is or how high the stock market is, the specter of racial inequality and social injustice is always there . . . like a single voice, from a single audio speaker, piercing the peaceful, breezy silence . . . even if there is no one there to hear it.
Bright, a photographer often described as a “cultural anthologist,” is no stranger to the area. As a child, she lived in Kansas for a while. Before earning an MFA from Georgia State University, she earned a BS from the University of Missouri. Her works are in esteemed collections including the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights and the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, a sponsor of the project with JCCC’s Fine Arts and Design faculty.
While based in Atlanta, Bright had her first solo exhibition at the High Museum in 2008. A winner of the Center Prize at the Santa Fe Center of Photography, she later was selected for the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia’s Working Artist Project.
After the racially charged deaths of Michael Brown (2014) and Freddie Grey (2015), Bright took photographs of the protests in both Ferguson and Baltimore. Published as the striking book “#1960Now,” it was a fitting response to Bright’s 2014 exhibition “1960Who,” consisting of riveting portraits of ’60s and ’70s civil rights activists that were shown at institutions including the Museum of Contemporary Art Georgia, Jackson Fine Art, and the International Center of Photography.
In the JCCC presentation, which was installed by students, the viewer is presented with black and white images of six current Black Lives Matter activists laid outside a set of windows in front of the Fine Arts & Design Studios (FADS) building. All taken in 2015, the photographs feature Taliba Obuya, Crystal E. Monds, Raquel Willis, Robert Houston, Melissa Rivas-Triana and Dr. Bernard Lafayette Jr. A set of placards in the window briefly describes each participant.
A video montage of footage from both the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the Black Lives Matter movement of today plays on three television sets in the window. The combination of the images and voices of since-passed civil rights heroes on the televisions and the installation’s still images of current civil rights activists, close-focused and with eyes looking directly at the viewer, creates the feel of an altar. We look into the eyes of those with us, hear the voices of activists that have passed on, and feel there is a connection. Their singularity of purpose has made them one.
Bright’s installation successfully transforms the mundane walkway into a place of reverence, reflection and homage. We are simultaneously participants and spectators in a “meeting with the ancestors.” In this meeting, the struggle and hope of both the 1960s civil rights movement and today’s Black Lives Matter movement are felt, expressed and experienced.
The striking quietness of the campus, the flowing trees discarding their autumn leaves, and the soft, filtered November sunlight contribute a sense of gentleness, kindness and comfort to this experience. Intentional or not, the atmospheric qualities of the Kansas autumn are a part of the installation.
Inside the FADS building, a large blackboard displays viewers’ thoughts and responses inspired by figures ranging from Malcolm X to black conservative Candance Owens. There is a box for used chalk and a box for untouched chalk, signaling that even in the midst of the continuing civil rights struggle, COVID-19 has shockingly reminded us all of our mortality.
On a dry erase board, technically not a part of the exhibit, someone had written a quote from C.S. Lewis. It reads, “There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.” Surely, the activists portrayed in this exhibition believed that. Bright’s exhibition reminds us of that.
Do we also believe?
Sheila Pree Bright: “#1960Now” continues outside the FADS building at Johnson County Community College, 12345 College Blvd., Overland Park, through November 23. The exhibit is open during campus hours, 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday-Friday and noon to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For more information, call 913.469.8500 ext. 3649 or visit www.jccc.edu/events/2020/1027-1960now-outdoor-exhibit.html.
Sheila Pree Bright will speak during a free Zoom event from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. November 19 as part of the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art’s Virtual Third Thursday Visiting Artist program. Registration is required at www.jccc.edu/events/2020/1027-1960now-outdoor-exhibit.html.