Amistad and after: Hale Woodruff's Talladega murals

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, September/October 2012 | 

The new exhibition Rising Up: Hale Woodruff's Murals at Talladega College offers unprecedented access to murals that for more than seventy years have resided at the historically black school in Alabama-and a compelling lesson in American history. It is the culmination of a collaboration between Talladega and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, which oversaw the cleaning and restoration of the murals.

In 1938 Talladega president Buell Gallagher commissioned Hale Aspacio Woodruff to create the murals for the school's Savery Library, then under construction. The building is named for William Savery, one of two freed slaves who started the school that would become Talladega College. Woodruff was living in Atlanta at the time, having been recruited in 1931 to launch a new art department at Atlanta University. He later admitted that he had not known about the Amistad uprising.1 The event gripped the fledgling nation in 1839 and for some time after, but it faded from popular consciousness after the Civil War. Woodruff garnered much acclaim for the project, which was featured in Time magazine and other publications. His friend Alain Locke, the Harlem Renaissance writer, highlighted the murals in his 1940 book The Negro in Art, as did W. E. B. Du Bois in his journal Phylon. More recently, Steven Spielberg brought the uprising widespread attention with his 1997 film Amistad.

Originally mounted opposite each other in the lobby of Talladega's Savery Library, each series consists of three panels, a center canvas measuring roughly six by twenty feet flanked by two six-by-eleven-foot panels. Conservationist Larry Shutts described the murals as in "surprisingly good condition."2 Their placement high on the walls spared them the bustle of college life. All but one were essentially just tacked to the walls and easily removed.

The complex narratives are necessarily abridged and dense with information. The series spans one hundred years of African-American history, from the 1839 mutiny aboard the Amistad to the 1939 opening of the Savery Library. Or, as exhibition curator Stephanie Mayer Heydt puts it, "from oppression to opportunity."3 By linking the pivotal case in which slaves prevailed to the establishment of an educational institution that would foster progress in the black community, the project was intended to empower students. Considered one of Woodruff's most important accomplishments, the murals are as significant historically as they are artistically.

Originally mounted opposite each other in the lobby of Talladega's Savery Library, each series consists of three panels, a center canvas measuring roughly six by twenty feet flanked by two six-by-eleven-foot panels. Conservationist Larry Shutts described the murals as in "surprisingly good condition."2 Their placement high on the walls spared them the bustle of college life. All but one were essentially just tacked to the walls and easily removed.

The complex narratives are necessarily abridged and dense with information. The series spans one hundred years of African-American history, from the 1839 mutiny aboard the Amistad to the 1939 opening of the Savery Library. Or, as exhibition curator Stephanie Mayer Heydt puts it, "from oppression to opportunity."3 By linking the pivotal case in which slaves prevailed to the establishment of an educational institution that would foster progress in the black community, the project was intended to empower students. Considered one of Woodruff's most important accomplishments, the murals are as significant historically as they are artistically.

In June they and a selection of some forty paintings and prints went on view at the High, the first of eight venues on a three-year national tour.  The museum installation loses Woodruff's visual pairing and intentional harmonizing of figures and elements that would have been across from each other, but Heydt does an excellent job of setting the stage in the exhibition catalogue.

Born in Cairo, Illinois, and raised there and in Nashville, Woodruff attended the Herron School of Art in Indianapolis, where the emphasis was on impressionistic landscape painting. He left after three years and briefly attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago before returning to Indianapolis. A local bookstore owner there introduced him to Carl Einstein's 1921 German publication Afrikanische Plastick, just as the journal Opportunity was encouraging black artists to study African art and well-known European artists like Picasso and Modigliani were looking to African forms for inspiration. Eager to be at the intersection of modern and African art, Woodruff set off for Paris in 1927.

During four years abroad he produced such canvases as Old Farmhouse in Beauce Valley (1928), a bucolic post-impressionist style landscape, and the cubistic painting The Card Players (1930). (Both are in the High exhibition.) Even after his return to the United States in 1931, Woodruff continued to employ European styles. Autumn in Georgia (Fig. 9) and Georgia Landscape (1934-1935), for example, are reminiscent of Van Gogh in their brushwork, and throughout the Talladega series there are direct references to European masterpieces.

Living deep in the Jim Crow South, however, Woodruff's focus turned to social issues and the squalid living conditions of many blacks. Shacks (1933) depicts city slums in south Atlanta, and a series of nine linocut prints offers such scenes as a lynching and women promenading in their Sunday best amid dilapidated structures. Ralph McGill, the anti-segregation columnist and later editor of the Atlanta Constitution, wrote that Woodruff's works "speak out in rebuke. They are worth more, they say more than all the studies on economics and the need for slum clearance and for better housing."4 

Woodruff traveled to Mexico in 1936 to study with Diego Rivera, whose influence on him was profound (see Fig. 8). Woodruff's European experience combined with Rivera's method of constructing a compelling story beyond what he described, paraphrasing Rivera, as "just journalistic kinds of reporting"5 would find a perfect balance in the Talladega murals.

In the tradition of grand history painting, the Talladega murals are rife with symbolism and cameos by prominent figures. With its dramatic backstory, the Amistad group is, unsurprisingly, the more compelling of the two. Woodruff rendered the violent episode and ensuing trial and repatriation in powerful compositions of thrusting angles and vibrant color.

The Amistad story begins in Sierra Leone, where hundreds of Africans were illegally captured and sent to Cuba, a hub of the slave trade. Fifty-three were purchased by José Ruiz and Pedro Montez, Spanish planters traveling on the Cuban schooner Amistad. On July 1, 1839, led by Joseph Cinqué (born Sengbeh Pieh), the Africans seized the ship, killed the captain and the cook, and demanded they be returned to Africa. For nearly two months the planters instead deceptively sailed north until, on August 24, the Amistad was seized by an American brig off Long Island; the Africans were imprisoned in New Haven, Connecticut. Following the dismissal of murder charges, the case turned to salvage claims and property rights, i.e., who owned the slaves. With the Africans facing extradition to Cuba, a group of abolitionists, including Simeon S. Jocelyn, Joshua Leavitt, and Lewis Tappan, raised money for their defense and prevailed in court. The case went to the Supreme Court in February 1841, where former President John Quincy Adams argued for the defense and won the release of the thirty-five survivors; the rest had died at sea or while in captivity.

And here is the crucial link between the two series: In 1846 the group of Amistad abolitionists helped create the American Missionary Association (AMA), whose mission to abolish slavery and educate blacks led to their establishing hundreds of schools and a number of colleges, including Atlanta, Howard, and Fisk universities and Talladega College.

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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