Reckoning: Protest. Defiance. Resilience. looks at the ways in which visual art has long provided its own protest, commentary, escape, and perspective for African Americans. Reckoning is a testament to how artists and photographers have used their voice to pay tribute to those we have lost, lifting up names such as Eric Garner, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor at demonstrations and in communities online. The show journeys from defiance to resilience to grief and mourning, hope and change.

Truliza Fleming in a black dress with a carmine jacket
Tuliza Fleming , NMAAHC interim chief curator of visual arts.
Photo courtesy Washington Post
The exhibition seeks to forge connections between the Black Lives Matter protests, racial violence, grief and mourning, hope and change.

Guided Tour

Guided Tour: Reckoning: Protest. Defiance. Resilience.

(slow-paced music)

Kevin Young:

(visual: Keven Young, Andrew W. Mellon Director, National Museum of African American History and Culture, stands in exhibition gallery entrance)

Welcome to "Reckoning: Protest. Defiance. Resilience." This is our latest show here in the Rhimes Family Gallery, on our fourth floor. Let's take a look around.

So we picked this title "Reckoning," because we were thinking about the reckonings of the past few years, especially last summer, with the protests around the murder of George Floyd. These were the largest protests and mass movement in American history. How do we capture that? This is something that African American artists have long thought about. These questions of resilience, these questions of protests, and these questions of defiance. That they bring together in visual art, whether it's photography, textile art, sculpture, or portraiture. And we're gonna see that here today.

One thing you can see here in the gallery is the power of these murals, which were taken from photographs from the mass protest of the past few years. You can see the numbers, the speakers, the ways that people came together and came in the streets, often in the midst of a pandemic to raise their voices. And we want to capture that.

There's so many amazing pieces of art in this show, all taken from our permanent collection, as well as some new acquisitions. One of my favorite works in the show is by Bisa Butler. I Go To Prepare A Place For You. It's based on the portrait of Harriet Tubman that visitors can find downstairs in our history galleries. It's the earliest known portrait of Tubman, and it's so powerful to see that, under an artist's interpretation. She uses African textiles. She uses quilting to techniques from African American culture to combine into a powerful portrait where Harriet Tubman is alive and looking at us.

And it's looking at the portrait of Breonna Taylor by Amy Sherald. It's a transformative piece which brings her to life, along with a timeline of Breonna Taylor's life, written by her mother, Tamika Palmer. The Breonna Taylor portrait, sits alongside African American history in the entire museum, of course, but also art history here in this gallery. We capture almost a hundred years of sculpture, textile art, protests, defiance, resilience.

Tuliza Fleming:

(visual: Tuliza Fleming stands at a gallery entrance)

Hi, my name is Tuliza Fleming. I'm the Interim Chief Curator of Visual Arts at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. We are here today to celebrate this exhibition of how artists have and continue to use their art to protest at racial injustice and systemic racism.

Please join me as we preview the exhibition. African Americans have been used using art to protest injustice since the mid 19th century. One of our earliest pieces is this work by Meta Warrick Fuller. She was a sculptor that worked between the late 19th and early 20th century through the 1960s. This piece was commissioned by W.E.B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson for the Negro exhibit in the “America's Making” exhibition.

The “America’s Making” exhibition was actually created to talk about how immigrants in the United States, helped shaped our country. When you look at this work, you see a half mummified woman who's emerging from her wrappings to face a new day. This piece was a symbolic representation of emancipation for the New Negro.

Rashaun Rucker is best known for his pieces, dealing with black male identity and social conditioning. In this work right here you see his merging of drawings of young African American males with rock pigeons. Rock pigeons are considered dirty animals, which are nuisances, and sometimes are described as rats with wings. In this piece, he's outlines each image with a bird cage, a red bird cage, which symbolizes redlining. Redlining began with the New Deal's Homeowners Association, which started in the 1930s and continued through the 1960s. This process was when they drew maps and put red lines around the maps for black communities and green lines around the maps for white communities. This was really important because when wanted to go for loans, for housing or businesses or even grocery stores, the banks would not give loans to them because they said they was a high risk. This manifested in the lack of generational wealth, because as many people know, most generational wealth comes from home ownership. Now these red lines around these images represent cages. And this is a psychological cage, many black men feel living in these communities without resources or jobs. So what he's doing here is merging this idea that black men are like pigeons and they don't fly because pigeons don't migrate with this idea that black men have potential to do so if they can just get out of their psychological cage.

This piece here you see is by Merton Simpson, who was a member of the artist group named Spiral, who in part gathered together to talk about agency of black artists, the way to improve African American lives and racism in society. Merton Simpson created this piece a few years after Spiral ended. And it's really called Confrontation because it's about the confrontation by African Americans and white Americans in 1960s society. One of the things I wanna talk about is how he described this work. And if I could read a quote, that would be really wonderful. He states, "I'm painting what I think I see, ugly people fighting ugly people." Simpson says, "I see the wrongness on either side. I just think it's a ugly thing. I want to paint it as that. And I think if people can see it and frown upon it enough, it might make them think, 'Am I really a part of this?' Then I should want to do something about this."

This portrait by Lava Thomas is an image of Euretta Adair who is one of 80 people who are arrested for planning and participating in the Montgomery Bus Boycotts. She joined the organization, which was called the Montgomery Improvement Association. Four days after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the Montgomery bus. Lava Thomas's drawing of Adair is one of 12 portraits in her series, Mugshot Portraits: Women of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Drawn from actual mugshots of female activists. These portraits highlight the commitment and bravery of unsung women of the movement who sacrifices insured today's freedoms.

Bisa Butler is a fiber artist, best known for creating images of African Americans based upon historical photographs. Her piece, I Go To Prepare A Place For You is based upon a historical photograph that was newly discovered of Harriet Tubman. The piece was commissioned by the African American Museum in 2021. Bisa has imbued many symbols in this piece. The first one you see is her skin color, which is both blue and red, the blue and red stand for her duality of personality that all of us embody. The blue stands for calmness, coolness and strength, and the red in her face and her hands, stands for force and power. Another symbolic element of this piece is her dress. Bisa chose Vlisco wax fabrics, which is a very popular brand of fabric making in the Netherlands that is used and appreciated in West Africa. They're known for their very graphic style and bright colors. In this piece, Bisa Butler chose to use fabric from the City of Joy line. The City of Joy is a leadership organization of women who have been raped and brutalized by Congolese soldiers and citizens in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. One of the symbols in this piece is the lion, which stands for the strength and leadership of Harriet Tubman as she led enslaved people to freedom. Another thing is the whole skirt represents this idea of moving from an enslaved state to a free state where you walk through the thickets of the underbrush, through the flowers, to the skies and eventually to the sleeves, which shows birds, which represents the eventual freedom of enslaved Africans through their journey. Another symbolic element is the background. The background of the piece, highlights dark sunflowers and metallic elements that represent stars. She chose to use sunflowers because they're considered devotional flowers who often face the sun as they grow. And in this piece, she decided to make them dark and have them surrounding Harriet Tubman, who is actually the light emanating from this image. The stars of course represent the nighttime skies that enslaved people were following as they moved into the North in search of freedom.

This piece is a print, a multiple print by David Hammons, called The Man Nobody Killed. It was created in memoriam to a young man named Michael Stewart, who was aspiring artist and model. In 1984, he was headed home on the subway station and made the decision to create graffiti on the wall. He was arrested by two police officers and brutally beaten outside of the subway station. After his beating, he was taken to the police station where he was beaten once again. His injuries were so severe that he stopped breathing and arrived at the hospital and fell into a coma. He died 13 days later after his beating and nobody was arrested for the crime. Therefore the title is called The Man Nobody Killed.

This painting is by Torkwase Dyson and is titled I Can't Breathe. Torkwase Dyson is known for her work that incorporates geometry, architecture and abstraction. She also talks about how black people, negotiates spatial order in their environment. I Can't Breathe actually refers to the phrase that Eric Garner repeated 11 times before he was murdered by the police.

What you're about to see is one of the highlights of our exhibition. A portrait of Breonna Taylor by artist Amy Sherald. This is a portrait of Breonna Taylor, who was the face of a movement, against violence against women and police brutality. The painting is done by Amy Sherald. An artist who's known for painting everyday African Americans, she encounters on her daily life. She also is notable for her portrait of Michelle Obama, which is housed in a National Portrait Gallery.

In 2020, following the brutal murder of Breonna Taylor in her home through a botch police raid, Amy Sherald was commissioned by Vanity Fair Magazine to create a cover issue for their 2020 September issue, which was guest edited by Ta-Nehisi Coates. When Amy first started doing the portrait, she really wanted to talk to Breonna Taylor's mother, Tamika Palmer, about who Breonna Taylor was. She wanted this painting to be a celebration of life, not just a commemoration of her death. What she learned was that Breonna was a woman of faith. She loved fashion, and she was going to get married. So in her drawing, she wanted to merge these elements that she learned from Taylor's mother and to the portrait she created. That was more of a celebration of life than a commemoration of her death. What you see here is a cross that indicates Breonna Taylor's faith. You also see her dress that indicates her interest in fashion. And finally, you see that she has on an engagement ring, which she never received in real life because her partner, Kenneth Walker, did not have the opportunity to propose to her due to her tragic death.

Kevin Young:

I think it's a very powerful experience being in the gallery. You get to experience firsthand this history of art, but also the history of African Americans, told through the lens of art. And this is of course, an American story. You see lots of renditions of the American flag. You see work that contends with race and gender. You can see people thinking about protests and thinking about beauty and beauty as an act of resistance. There's also very much a sense in the gallery of reverence, but also a sense of how these communities come together. One of my favorite pieces is by Charles Alston called Walking. I rather think of it in terms of marching, because that's really what they're doing. And in that portrait, you'll see a beautiful figure in the front who just remarkably reminds us of the Breonna Taylor just steps away.

Aaron Bryant:

Hi, my name is Aaron Bryant and I'm Curator of Photography and Visual Culture, here at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. And right now we're in the entrance gallery of the exhibition "Reckoning: Protest. Defiance. Resilience." This entrance gallery is really a space where we can begin to orient visitors to what this exhibition is all about. Within this entrance gallery, we cover all of the themes of the exhibitions, protests, defiance, resilience, and more importantly, the role that artists have played historically in the social activism, the demands for equality and social change and providing a voice for the black community. What they've played historically, we feature artists like Sheila Pree Bright. Who covers Black Lives Matter movement and particularly women's role in the Black Lives Matter movement, not just in organizing protests, but leading protests. We have filmmaker, Tommy Oliver, who is a filmmaker, but decided to take his camera down to Hollywood Boulevard and photograph one of the largest protests in Los Angeles history.

So this photograph here is by Zun Lee and Zun is actually known for his photographs of Ferguson in 2014. This particular photograph was actually taken during Ferguson October. And it features Lesley McFadden, Michael Brown's mother, leading one of the earliest protests in Ferguson. Next to that, we have another Zun Lee photograph. But what Zun Lee is doing here is he's focusing on the relationship between this father and his daughter. And he's creating a narrative that is created by the subjects of the photograph, the black man and his daughter, versus the images that we like to impose on them. And so this is really about defiance, not just defiance on behalf of the people who are in the photograph, but defiance by the photographer saying, "We're gonna show you a very different reality for black men in this country."

Along those lines, we have this photograph by Devin Allen and of course, Devin Allen became an overnight sensation, when his photographs of protests in Baltimore in 2015, went viral. Devin became known for his Freddie Gray protest images. And in fact, within two weeks of taking one of his most popular images that spread all over the internet, he was on the cover of Time Magazine, which is amazing to think that an amateur photographer, this man had only been photographing for two years and then suddenly one of his photographs is being shared by Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Rihanna, and then all over the world. And within a matter of two weeks, he's on the cover of a major news magazine. And so we also wanted to make sure that we had his work represented. I think it also speaks to the important role that social media has played and in terms of how art is created and how artists are discovered. There has been something that's been very democratizing about that and we wanted to have that sense of democratization that the power belongs to the artists and the power belongs to the community. This is what Devin Allen represents and we wanted to make sure that we have that represented in the exhibition.

Along those lines, we have next to Devin, a photograph by Michael McCoy. Again, Michael takes a very different approach to the idea of resistance and defiance. His form of resistance and defiance features a black couple, sitting together quietly on the steps of a church they're wearing matching T-shirts and the T-shirts actually feature the Time Magazine cover that made Devin Allen famous. And I should also mention Jermaine Gibbs, which is the larger mural here. This photograph really speaks to a couple of things. Again, it was taken from Baltimore during the Freddie Gray protest in 2015, but it's really about visual literacy. Because when you look at this photograph, you might assume that these protestors have turned their backs to police officers, but this photograph isn't about that at all. This protestors have actually linked arms to create a line and create a buffer between the police and the angry community of protestors before them. So they're actually protecting the police from the crowd and they're protecting the crowd from the police. And so we wanted to feature this image because it really shows the complicated nature of how we can make assumptions about images without knowing the backstory. But in addition to that, you'll notice that we have this flag here. This gentleman is wearing this flag, which is actually Patrick Campbell's, New Age of Slavery featured here. If you look closely at Patrick Campbell's flag, you'll notice that he has some really poignant commentaries between the stars and stripes. And I think you actually have to come into the museum and see the exhibition for yourself to really appreciate the commentary that's being made. But essentially between the stars and stripes, he has bodies being shot, bodies pleading for their lives and bodies that are hanging limp from nuisance. This image again went viral on social media, following the murder of Eric Garner, and it had been used as a symbol of Black Lives Matter protest from Eric Garner to of course being used here on this T-shirt, Freddie Gray and other Black Lives Matter protests across the country.

As visitors walk through the door, we really wanted them to understand that there is an artist's presence and social activism and in these protest movements. These artists here are not just observers of protests. They were actual active participants in this protest, and they were able to document their participation as well as the participation of entire communities. Again, what they're saying is that the power, not only below to the artist and the individual, but the power to tell these stories and to make social change belongs to the community.

All righty, so with this piece here, it's by Colette Veasey-Cullors, it's a triptych actually so it's really three photographs and they're entitled Insecurity Past, Insecurity Present, and Insecurity Future. And with this piece, Colette Veasey-Cullors is actually commenting on the idea that our past our present and our futures are connected. These images are actually taken from a larger body of work, entitled Metaphors and Life. And so this concept of the past is connected to the present and the future. It really aligns with the museum's idea that this museum is not just about the past. It's about the present and the future and the connections between say contemporary history and protests and looking at these protests today and everyday lives today, the experiences of everyday lives today and the relationship throughout history. We're doing this with subject matter and themes in this exhibition, as well as making connections between artists.

And the final piece that I wanted to highlight is by Shaun Leonardo, and it's entitled Rodney King, Before BLM. What's important about this piece is that Leonardo has chosen to focus on Rodney King. And through his work, what he's done, he's removed the image of Rodney King so that we focus on the 11 officers who are part of his beating. So we begin to talk less about Rodney King himself, but what about the perpetrators and their role in this beating. And how is it throughout history, their role in this event was erased. The other thing that Shaun Leonardo does, that's really important is he will often place a mirror or some sort of glaze in the piece so that when you're looking at the piece, you can actually see yourself reflected in it.

And that's what we hope visitors will do with all of the artwork that's here. When you look at the artwork, we want you to see yourself reflected in the work itself.

Kevin Young:

I think one of the things we're thinking about a lot as we enter our fifth anniversary is living history. How are we living through history and how history lives in us. And capturing recent collections, whether that's collecting material from Black Lives Matter Plaza or mounting this show "Reckoning." Really thinks about recent events and how they're very much, part of this long strand of history. This story that we tell in the rest of the museum, which comes home here in these galleries.  

Detail An Offering #5 by Stephen Towns, 2017. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, © Stephen Towns. 2019.25.5ab

Family Guide

Reckoning: Protest. Defiance. Resilience. tells stories of injustice, resistance and courage. Use this Family Guide to introduce these complex ideas and facilitate conversations in developmentally appropriate and meaningful ways for children through questions and activities connected to featured artworks. Note: To best honor children’s developmental and emotional needs, we’ve provided a preview of the sensitive and graphic imagery and audio in the exhibit.