This past summer, I stood on the northern grounds of The City College of New York, surrounded by large rectangular panels representing works from more than 90 visual artists. Some of the image makers had come to the sloping plaza to join me in celebrating the launch of “Joining Forces: Living Art on the Hill”, an outdoor installation I curated to foster dialogue and growth among artists and art organizations, and also inspire the revival of public arts in Harlem.
The hilltop site was once an open-air arena. In 1963 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., known mostly for his organizing and activist efforts in the South and Washington, D.C., delivered a stirring commencement speech there, during a particularly tumultuous time in our nation’s history: less than 24 hours after civil rights activist Medgar Evers was murdered in front of his home, the day following President Kennedy‘s televised address in support of King’s civil rights bill and Gov. George Wallace upholding his “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” promise by blocking a doorway of the all-white University of Alabama, attempting to prevent two black students from entering.
I found myself transported back to the location of the former Lewisohn Stadium a few weeks ago. As I looked out at the scene I saw people of all ages and races assembled to admire art, but it was easy to imagine City College graduates on the old field 50 years ago draped in their purple caps and gowns, looking towards the future and listening to King’s soaring oratory alongside their families. King was trying out some of the themes that eventually found their way into his historic “I Have a Dream” speech two months later, including its impossible to forget ending: “With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood….all of God’s children…will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
The concepts of freedom, equality and human pride are just as inspiring and relevant today as ever, and because diversity of race, religion, culture, gender and age is front and center in this display I was cognizant of the unique opportunity I had to use its vibrant visuals to interpret the spirit of the civil rights era, and share it with new generations. I was challenged to do so because, as King said to CCNY graduates one balmy June evening half-century ago, “Human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. Human progress comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals.”
Dr. King was a man of vision, and seeing gorgeous images conceived and created by a multi-national, cross-generational, rainbow assortment of emerging and established sculptors, photographers and painters on view and accessible to all is like a dream come true. I have always imagined a world where art is the joining force that builds collaborations. The nature of this force is creative, beautiful and imaginative, and possesses the formula to heal nations. This kind of cooperation rarely takes place, and I was pleased to see the pieces reaching out and warmly greeting visitors to the City College campus.
“Joining Forces” attempts to transport guests through generations of extraordinary history and across continents, just as Dr. King did five decades ago. He offered another timely illustration of the old African proverb that echoes thorough this showcase: “Who we are is because of the many shoulders on which we stand.”
For more information about “Joining Forces: Living Art on the Hill” please visit http://www.ccny.cuny.edu/news/joining-forces-art-exhibit.cfm
(Dr. Myrah Brown Green is Executive Director of Arts and Culture in the Office of Government Affairs at City College of New York. She is an art historian, fiber/surface designer, and professional quilt artist. Her quilts are part of a number of private collections including the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Museum in Washington, D.C.