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Celebrated Civil Rights murals on display at NOMA

16th June 2014   ·   0 Comments

By Fritz Esker
Contributing Writer

The works of one of America’s most celebrated artists showcasing some of the most pivotal moments in African-American history are now on display in New Orleans.

Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Mu­rals at Talladega College opened at the New Orleans Mus­eum of Art on May 16, bringing six world renowned murals to the New Orleans Museum of Art.

The Atlanta-based Woodruff be­gan work on the murals in 1938 at the behest of Talladega College’s president. Racial tension in Ala­bama was high and the president wanted to adorn the school’s new library with murals depicting important events in the struggle for civil rights, highlighting collaborative efforts between whites and African Americans.

“The goal was to show how whites and Blacks worked together for the betterment of society,” said Lisa Rotondo-McCord, deputy director for curatorial affairs for NOMA.

The college installed the first murals on the centennial of the 1839 mutiny of the slave ship Amistad. These murals depicted the uprising, trial, and return to Africa of the ship’s captives. Woodruff’s work marked the first depiction of the Amistad’s ordeal in contemporary art.

The second set of murals honored the 75th anniversary of the birth of Talladega College. The works depict a variety of events, including the Underground Rail­road and whites and African Americans working side by side to create the college.

Both sets of murals also pay tribute to the American Missionary Association, an organization that organized the legal defense of the Amistad captives. Decades later, the AMA became instrumental in the founding of Talladega College and other African-American educational institutions.

For decades, many art aficionados made pilgrimages to the Talladega library to see the murals. At the time of their creation, prestigious publications like Time and Life covered Woodruff’s artwork. But now, the “Rising Up” tour will allow people from around the country to see Woodruff’s masterworks up close without traveling to Alabama.

“The ‘Rising Up’ tour displays a story of determination, resiliency, and the new African-Ameri­can experience,” said Dr. Billy C. Hawkins, president of Talladega College. “We look forward to sharing Woodruff’s incredible artwork with the New Orleans community.”

The idea for the tour began when Talladega and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta received a grant to restore the murals. The painstaking process took 18 months. Since the restoration work necessitated the murals’ removal from the walls for the first time since 1939, Talladega and the High felt it would be a good opportunity for people across the country to see the murals, which stood about nine feet off the ground on the library walls.

“You can see them as you never would have been able to see them in the library,” said Rotondo-McCord.

Not only will people see Wood­ruff’s art, they will see the benefits of the restoration efforts. The vibrant colors seem to pop off the murals.

“It looks like it was painted yesterday,” said Rotondo-McCord.

Woodruff was born in Cairo, Illinois in 1900, but raised in Nashville by his mother after the death of his father. In addition to his art studies in the United States, which included the John Herron Art Institute in Indianapolis, Art Institute of Chicago and Harvard’s Fogg Museum School, he trained at the Academie Scandinave and Academie Moderne in Paris. He collected African art and began incorporating African imagery into his paintings.

But Woodruff was more than just an artist; he was an accomplished educator. In 1931, he established the first art school for African Americans in the South at Atlanta University. He also taught at New York University, Clark University, and Spelman College.

“Through Woodruff’s murals, you tie together not just the history of African-American art, but the history of African-American education,” said Christopher Harter, director of library and reference services at the Amistad Research Center.

Local residents who are curious to learn more about Woodruff and the Amistad can visit the Amistad Research Center in Tulane University’s Tilton Memorial Hall on St. Charles Avenue. The center is running a corollary exhibition to “Rising Up” Monday through Friday from 8:30-4:30. More of Woodruff’s papers and work are on display.

Visitors can see Woodruff’s sketchbook and read his notes on craft and his time spent with the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera in 1936. He also wrote ideas for his teaching syllabi in the notebook.

“It ties together both his artistic work and his work as a seminal educator,” said Harter.

The exhibit will be on display at NOMA through September 14. The Amistad Research Center’s materials will be on display through August 29.

This article originally published in the June 16, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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