Crystal Bridges exhibit brings nation's racial unrest into artistic focus

"Cotton Bowl," by Hank Willis Thomas, one of the many works of art on display at the artist's "All Things Being Equal" exhibit inside Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas.

BENTONVILLE, Ark. — The timing was coincidental, but it couldn’t have been better.

When Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art temporarily closed two months ago to contain the spread of COVID-19, it had just opened the exhibit "Hank Willis Thomas: All Things Being Equal," a multi-media examination of how popular culture shapes social justice and civil rights.

The exhibit was originally scheduled to close in April. But because it lost two months of public viewing due to the temporary closing, the museum decided to extend it to July 13.

Meanwhile, protesters took to the streets across America demanding racial justice and systemic change to address racial inequality.

That civil unrest was coincidental to the re-opening of Crystal Bridges a couple of weeks ago. But the timing of the re-opening with the Hank Willis Thomas exhibit couldn’t have been better, considering the protests.

America is experiencing a sea change in attitudes toward racial inequities and that’s what makes this exhibit so timely. It forces viewers to consider the history of inequality, specifically for blacks, and how it has been shaped by popular culture. It gives context to our new civil rights movement.

“Haunting, challenging, thought- and tear-provoking,” a friend wrote on Facebook after viewing the exhibit. “I started crying at the very beginning of the exhibit. It really moved me and ignited me.”

Thomas is a black conceptual artist who uses photography, sculpture, video installations and mixed media to raise awareness about the struggle for social justice and civil rights. This exhibit of more than 90 pieces is a survey of 25 years of his work.

Using sports, advertising images and key moments in past civil rights actions to drive his works, Thomas explores our cultural stereotypes about race, as well as gender, and how they perpetuate social inequality.

Various pieces draw on the dehumanization of people through our systems of capitalism and class power. One piece, “Branded,” features a black athlete with a Nike logo branded on his head, a play on market branding based on race and used by those in power. Another, “Cotton Bowl,” features a cotton slave crouched head to head with a present-day football player, alluding to their work in fields owned by others. One made plantation owners rich, while the other makes money for colleges and sports franchises.

Pieces that I found particularly powerful are informed by archival images from historic civil rights moments.

One is a sculpture based on a famous photo from 1964, taken during an event organized by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in Cambridge, Maryland. The photo depicts black activist Clifford Vaughns being seized by National Guardsmen who are grabbing his arm, legs and neck as demonstrators try to pull him back. The life-sized sculpture is a body in the air with disembodied hands and arms grabbing from every angle while the figure balances solely on one arm and hand.

Another is a series, “Trouble the Waters,” in which Thomas has combined archival images into single pictures, screen printed on the same vinyl materials that are used for reflective signs. Under normal gallery conditions, viewers see only a portion of the pictures, but when a strong light, such as a camera flash, is directed on them, a full image becomes visible.

In one of the series pieces, a black man can be seen with his fingers raised in peace signs. When a camera flash is used, a full image emerges showing the man in the middle of a civil rights protest with National Guardsmen training guns on the protesters.

Not to be ignored in this exhibit is a room of works, “Bearing Witness: Murder’s Wake,” that connect perfectly with today’s protests that have been sparked by the killings of black men by police. It includes video and a full wall of portraits of family, friends and community members who were impacted by the murder of Thomas’s cousin. It acknowledges the personal and community impact of a single act of gun violence, regardless of whether it was at the hand of police.

Considering our current atmosphere of racial unrest, All Things Being Equal is an urgent exhibit that shouldn’t be missed. While it’s free, it requires timed tickets, meaning visitors must register for a specific time slot through the museum website,

The timed tickets ensure a museum capacity that is well below state COVID-19 prevention guidelines. The museum is allowing only 30 visitors per 15 minutes, based on five people per 1,000 square feet of public space in the museum.

This is among several virus-prevention guidelines that have been adopted by the museum since its re-opening.

Face coverings are required of all visitors age 10 and older with masks provided to those without them. A no touch experience has been instituted where possible and includes elimination of physical ticket interaction and doors that are either propped open or opened by staff or volunteers. Hand sanitizer stations have been placed throughout the museum, and interactive works are not in use.

While Eleven restaurant and the museum coffee shop are open, as are trails throughout the grounds, some art spaces are closed. This includes Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Room” and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Bachman Wilson House.

Special programming will continue to be offered virtually but there will be none offered on-site through at least June. A virtual tour of museum works, including selections from All Things Being Equal, is available through the museum website.

Marta is an arts columnist for The Joplin Globe.

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