WASHINGTON — More than 150 years of African-American history from slavery to civil rights and contemporary suburban life are in focus in two new exhibitions opening in the nation’s capital.
The National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery of Art opened exhibits Friday, in part to mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. declared “I have a dream” in August 1963. One show features the work of contemporary artist Kerry James Marshall, while the other follows King’s rise to prominence.
The National Gallery brought together a series of paintings by Marshall for the Chicago-based artist’s first solo exhibition in Washington. They serve as a timeline of history in pictures and symbols spanning the Middle Passage of slave ships traveling from Africa to America to the entry of black people in the middle class.
In a tour of the exhibit, Marshall said he has long worked to show the more complicated dimensions of history in his art.
“What mattered to me was really advancing the idea and the image and the presence of black folks in pictures — where they were infrequently encountered,” he said. Marshall said he wanted to find a way to ensure such pictures would have a place in the nation’s museums to tell a more complete history.
In 2011, the National Gallery of Art acquired his painting “Great America,” which depicts black figures in a small boat on an amusement park ride. It’s a scene of middle-class leisure but also contains troubling images of the past.
In other paintings, Marshall depicts the Virginia estates of two founding fathers, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who were slave holders — and he includes images of slaves or slave ships in the scene.
Marshall’s painting “Our Town” presents a more contemporary scene with black children in a suburban setting in place of “Dick and Jane” from old reading texts. The boy rides a bicycle, and a girl with a dog runs beside him. Their mother waves goodbye in the distance.
“There are black people who live in neighborhoods that are like that. But the truth is that many of those neighborhoods are black neighborhoods because the white folks who used to live in those neighborhoods moved out as soon as we started moving in,” Marshall said. “Those things … complicate the idea of your success when you arrive at a place like that.”
Curator James Meyer said Marshall’s art is distinctive because his paintings look both forward and backward in time to capture an entire sweep of African-American history.
“In other words, the exhibit confronts the idea of the American dream from a black perspective,” he said.
At the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, curator Ann Shumard focused on one key person’s biography for “One Life: Martin Luther King Jr.” The gallery gathered journalistic photographs and portraits from throughout King’s life.
There is a family portrait of King and his parents and siblings. Another photograph shows King and Rosa Parks at a large meeting during the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott, as well as an image of his first ride on an integrated bus and his arrest in Albany, Ga.
“This is really the heyday of just superb photojournalism,” Shumard said. “And the civil rights movement is the story.”
The museum also has the original artwork for Time magazine’s cover in 1957, as well as a formal portrait of King at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church by the famed portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh.
“We remember Martin Luther King so often just for that one speech, that one memorable ‘I have a dream address,'” Shumard said. “This exhibition is really designed to show far more than just that occasion. It’s really intended to allow us to trace the trajectory of King’s career.”
Both exhibits are on long-term display. The Marshall exhibit is open at the National Gallery of Art through Dec. 7. The King exhibit is open at the National Portrait Gallery until June 2014.
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