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“1968 “Art Exhibition curated by Deborah Willis
Tisch School of the Arts and the Nathan Cummings Foundation
September 9 - December 20, 2008

After much contemplation and a nitty gritty bout with the infamous ‘writers block’ syndrome, I thought the best way to reflect on the momentous year of 1968, was to get personal and begin with my early experience in 1964.……….Where I found myself spiritually swept, along with Abdullah Aziz (Teddy Gleaves) and Bill Howell leaving our San Juan Hill roots ( The Amsterdam Houses located across the street from Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts) and migrating to Harlem, eventually joining the 20th Century Creators - a historical organic gathering of over 50 African American artists from the tri-state region. We all felt compelled to bring art to our community and in a broader sense - the world. There was an astounding excitement and danger in the air, somewhat reminiscent of the time in which we now live. After all, it was only 18 months since we had all bore withness to one of the most traumatic assaults on the mass psyche -
with the assassination of our President, - who had just help put humanity on the moon.

1965.…………….WEUSI Artists organize and present the 2nd Annual Outdoor Harlem Art Festival in August

Earlier in the spring I had the life altering experience of attending the African Jazz Art Society and Studios (AJASS) Naturally ’65 ‘Black is beautiful’ fashion shows featuring glamorous runway models wearing their hair natural, flaunting their sophisticated and sensuous style, all to the beat of jazz and African rhythms. It was also my first experience with political and social commentary ‘community’ theatre, performed by the AJASS Repertory Company.

I was holding down a 8am to 5pm gig as a apprentice cutter at a men’s clothing factory . It was a boring monotonous job while supporting a young family, but somehow was energized by the tenor and milieu of world events and the burgeoning Harlem epicenter of Black evolutionary culture, politics.and art. I’ll never forget - at famed pianist, Randy Weston’s concert in Brooklyn, the moment thunderous silentdisbelief that permeated the room when the word came - “Malcolm X is dead!”..
A young designer /dressmaker named Khadejah introduces African fabric into contemporary fashion garnering international publicity. Her meteoric success, while short lived, inspires many of us to further find fascination with the promotion and marketing power of the “style” industry. The whole episode was of particular resonance with me for I had entertained the idea of becoming a fashion designer. from her east village boutique on St. Marks Place.with my fashion design interest and training at Fashion High School

Burden of Injustice 1968

I was inspired to create this woodcut from a photo in the book Muntu, while searching for models of traditional African sculpture and masks.. It depicted a carving on a Yoruba Temple door. and I felt an immediate compulsion to capture the essence of this striking image, I randomly grabbed a scrap of plywood and began to draw and eventually carve the plate. My reinterpretation of this image provided an ideal opportunity to reflect some generally conflicted feelings on the Christian iconic figure - ‘Christ Bearing The Cross’. among many of my colleagues in the Black Art Movement and segments of the larger community; As a portal to provoke thought and dialogue on several personal and philosophical issues prevalent at that time. I worked hard to get it published and exhibited extensively ( published in Art in America and Art Gallery international magazines among others. It did invoke spirited conversation on: the true ethnicity of Jesus in the African-American community and clergy; It was also symbolically reflective of the brutal dictatorship of President Mobutu of Zaire and his role in the alleged CIA assassination of popular leader Patrice Lumumba: The alarming fanatical growth of the ‘Born Again’ Christian and Islamic faiths replacing traditional belief systems and values; and of equal importance, the creation of a new perspective on a seminal icon in world history.

“The Burden of Injustice is a blessing to the strong and a curse to the weak . It provides the necessary incentive and undeniable momentum for the miracle of the new world.”

Ademola Olugebefola
August 1968

Confrontation 1966

1966 - The year of the double six, truly manifested in Oba Osijeman Adefunmi’s ( he was founder and leader of the new and growing Harlem based Yoruba traditional Orisha Diety worship movement of North America) prophetic 1965 forecast, that Shango ( the Diety of thunder and lighting) would rein supreme. This prediction manifested in world affairs, when, America’s and Europe’s hegemony, was jolted with the advent of newly won independence by the African nations of Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and others. The growing unpopularity of the Vietnam War had center stage. The thunderous outcry for “Black Power”, a phrase coined by SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael, shook the Civil Rights Movement to it’s core. The founding of the Black Panther Party countered by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s infamous Cointelpro program created a tension felt throughout. the Nation, somewhat reminiscent of today’s environment. Through the media of television, the world watched in astonishment and horror, as Dr. Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Council’s peaceful demonstrations, for equal rights for people of color,. Were met with attack dogs and waterhoses by so called ‘law enforcement’.
Good vs. Evil, Urban pollution and decay vs. Nature, Fertility vs. Impotence, Spiritual Power vs. Moral Bankruptcy, - All this and more, gave impetus and inspiration to the creation of this iconic image of that period.

Reclamation Site #2 1969
mixed medium montage 25"X50"

There were several years of community hearings, often amid virulent opposition to the government’s plan to construct the current Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. State Office Building.
Some embraced the plan as a stimulus for creating jobs and economic revitalization, while many community leaders and activists saw massive displacement of residents and small businesses. Finally, after months of rallys and street demonstrations, Governor Nelson Rockerfeller used the statute of “Eminent Domain” to level the full square block (125 -126th Street from 7th to Lenox Avenues) ). This demolition was especially painful to many who traveled from near and far, to hear the eloquent and fiery “Street Speakers” Bessie Phillips, Edward “Porkchop” Davis, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr, Dominican born ANPM founder, Carlos Cooks, Dr. Ben Jochannan, Charles Kenyatta of the Mau Mau, and Nation of Islam national representative Malcolm X, among many others, indoors and on the sidewalk of Michaux,s world famous book store on 125th street & 7th Avenue.
As community outrage persisted and widened, a group of men, women and families in defiance, used non violent civil disobedience to occupy the site and refused to let the bulldozer crews excavate. This bold action garnered national media attention and forced concessions by the State government, as to the eventual use and access to the facility, by the community. This organized mass protest was the impetus for creation of the Harlem Urban Development Corporation (HUDC). While I would be visiting friends and colleagues, who had set up tents and actually occupied and lived on the site for several months, I collected rocks, soil and debris and incorporated these materials into the overall composition of the montage, as a viceral and lasting tribute to the courageous men. women and children of “Reclamation Site # 2”. The image of the fist also reflected the rising tide of Pan - Africanism through the African Diaspora, the raging ongoing Civil Rights Movement, burgeoning cultural consciousness and virilent community activism of that period, as part of contemporary American history.

Dear Ademola,
I would like for you to participate in this exhibition. As you know I
am organizing an exhibition here at NYU and at the Nathan Cummings
Foundation on the events that changed America in 1968. If you have
any works relating to this proposed exhibit, please feel free to let
me know by sending me an email. I look forward to hearing from you.
Thank you
Deb Willis

1968: Then and Now

Exhibition Curator: Deborah Willis, Ph.D.
Nathan Cummings Foundation
Exhibition Dates: 9/20/08– 12/20/08
Opening Reception: Thursday September 25
New York University Tisch School of the Arts
Exhibition Dates: 9/5/08 –10/31/08, on view at TSOA and Nathan Cummings.
Opening Reception: Thursday, October 2

2008 marks the 40th Anniversary of a tumultuous year in American
history that lives on in our hearts and minds. This multimedia
exhibition will explore the year 1968 through letters, photographs,
paintings, prints, video, and installation art from a multivaried
group of artists and social activists who transformed our
understanding of identity, resistance, war, and peace. The exhibition
will include over twenty artists whose works are inspired by the
events of the 1960s.

Project Narrative:
This year marks the 40th anniversary of a tumultuous year in American
history that lives on in the hearts and minds of a generation. 1968
was a time when a multitude of social movements climaxed in discontent
with the political order of the United States, rooted in domestic
racial inequality and imperialist foreign policy. In a time when our
world is saturated with iconic images that reference resistance and
defining voices about war, identity, and human rights issues, we
reference 1968 as a focal point. This exhibition explores the range of
ideas and methods used by photographers, artists, and poets who
reflect on 1968 and whose works address some of the experiences and
iconic images that are rooted in our personal memory. The exhibit
combines historical and contemporary images that construct many
diverse stories about the culture of resistance, beauty, power, and
the notion of disenfranchisement.

A symposium will include discussions focusing on the period. Questions
in the exhibition and during the public program will address: Why do
we still have such powerful responses toward the images of this period
today? Why do young people and older people respond to the 1960s in
dress, politics, music, and in other powerful ways? The exhibition
will also look at the meanings behind the art works in the exhibition
and connect with the social and historical references in the works
produced post-1968. The exhibition will examine the iconic images that
reference the period. By placing these issues within a contemporary
art exhibition, the viewer will re-imagine the highlights of the
period and how it transformed society. Within the decade of the
1960s, this nation witnessed an abundance of events that changed our
understanding of war and peace that were bookmarked by the
Kennedy-Johnson presidencies, the Vietnam War, and The Civil Rights
and Black Power Movements. 1968 proved to be the pinnacle to an era of
youth-driven resistance that had never happened previously and has yet
to be repeated again.

The United States was at the center of international attention.
Shirley Chisholm (D-NY) was the first black woman elected to the U.S.
Congress. On January 31st, Viet Cong opened the Tet Offensive by
attacking major cities of South Vietnam, a move that instigated
President Lyndon B. Johnson's call for peace negotiations. On February
15th, César Chávez announces a 25-day fast in response to the violent
repression of farm workers. The Brown Berets are formed, creating two
chapters, one in Yakima and the other at the University of Washington
in Seattle. March 31st, President Johnson surprised the nation by
choosing not to run for reelection. On April 4th, civil rights leader
Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee,
leading to riots in Washington, D.C., Boston, Detroit, Kansas City,
and other major cities. In lieu of this instability, President Johnson
signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968 on April 11th.

In June, Robert F. Kennedy, former U.S. attorney general and U.S.
senator from New York, was assassinated in Los Angeles while
campaigning for the Democratic Presidential nomination. At Mexico
City's Summer Olympic Games, African-American sprinters Tommie Smith
and John Carlos won gold and bronze medals, then bowed their heads and
raised clenched fists during the playing of the U.S. national anthem
in protest of U.S. racism. In July, the American Indian Movement was
founded in Minneapolis, which lead to the passing of the Indian Civil
Rights Act of 1968. A group of Asian-American students at UC-Berkeley
who had joined a protest in support of Black Panther Huey Newton
created their own banner that read "Asian Americans for Justice." The
term became more popular in the early 1970s during nationwide protests
supporting ethnic studies and racial admissions, and increasingly took
root through the 1980s, in the climates of anti-Asian violence and the
immigrant rights movement. In August, the Democratic National
Convention in Chicago was marked by clashes between Vietnam War
protesters and Mayor Daley's police force. And in November, Richard
Nixon was elected President.

Music was also a prolific form of protest that captured the fervor of
the time. Many artists decided to use their fame and exposure to speak
out. In April, the musical Hair officially opened on Broadway. Otis
Redding released "(Sittin' On) the Dock of the Bay," The Rascals
pledged that "People Got to be Free," Sly and the Family Stone
proclaimed "Dance to the Music," Aretha Franklin told the world to
"Think," James Brown saluted, "Say It Loud- I'm Black and I'm Proud."
Johnny Cash recorded Live at Folsom Prison and the Jimi Hendrix
Experience released "All Along the the Watchtower."

Deborah Willis, Ph.D.
University Professor
Chair, Department of Photography & Imaging
New York University - Tisch School of the Arts
721 Broadway, NYC


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