When do you talk to your children about racial injustice? September Gray, a gallery owner in Atlanta, will open an exhibition at the end of the month that is all about the dialogue. The upcoming show, “IF NOT NOW…WHEN?,” showcases six artists who have something to say about the history and present of racial injustice. One of those artists, Kevin Cole, has a solo exhibition in Tuscaloosa, Alabama right now!
Kevin Cole’s artwork is about music, color, and soul journeys as much as it is about neck ties and racial injustice. He writes, “When I turned eighteen years old, my grandfather stressed the importance of voting by taking me to a tree where he was told that African-Americans were lynched by their neckties on their way to vote. The experience left a profound impression in my mind.” Thus the necktie is the starting point of his artworks and the impetus to talk about the history of lynching and racial injustice in America.
Cole also describes the transformation of the neckties and their “…curvilinear twists, knots, and loops…” in his artwork as “the energy found in the souls of ALL those who toil and triumph everyday against the odds and against the unheralded tragedies of life…” There are many layers to read in Cole’s “Blanket Series,” including his journey as a painter, his personal life, and his faith. But the reason I took my children to see it is to remind ourselves to do justice and make peace.
We stopped by the Dinah Washington Art Center on our way home from school to see the exhibition and take time to talk. I hope you will drag the children in your life to see this exhibition in Tuscaloosa this month or the group exhibition opening in Atlanta on February 23rd at September Gray Fine Art Gallery. Here are five things I did with my children at Kevin Cole’s show, “Blanket Series: Beyond the Surface.”
#1 First, we started by visiting the Equal Justice Initiative’s marker memorializing 8 African American men who were lynched in Tuscaloosa. Our first conversation was about the fact that this can happen here. The marker is located on 6th Street, near the Capitol School. Also, EJI will open a museum and memorial on April 26th in Montgomery dedicated to the over 4,400 victims of racial terror lynchings. Their videos on lynching in America are pointed and memorable. They are also good for starting a conversation. I put two at the end of this post.
#2 At the gallery, we walk a loop around the space in order to select our favorite. Then we take turns explaining why we chose our favorite. I ask them as many questions as they will answer about the artwork. How many columns? How many loops? What colors? What patterns? Are there any other artworks in the room like it? Is it the biggest artwork?
#3 While we are all sitting on the floor together, we draw the artwork in our sketchbooks (or on a scrap of paper) using a pencil. Older children should remember to write the title of the artwork and artist name by their drawing. We didn’t spend much time drawing during this visit.
#4 Then I pulled out a pile of dad’s old neckties. Their eyes lit up at the idea of using the same form as the artist. They seemed more interested in Cole’s compositions when trying to replicate his loops. After I showed them the artist’s book at the desk, they began twisting the ties into knots.
#5 There is a postcard by the door picturing one of the three copper pieces in the exhibition. You have to look closely to figure out just which artwork is on the card. This was our last puzzle before leaving.
The exhibition is up through February 26th, and the gallery is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Let me know if you get a chance to go. I would love to hear your perspective. If it is your first time taking your children, remember that they will either choose to engage or not. I try not to press mine to make it feel important. If this art or this time isn’t right, then we walk away. But before we leave, we do something to make ourselves laugh. We might breakdance on the shiny floor, race down the long foyer, or eat one of our “special” snacks. On this trip, we did all three.