Amistad and after: Hale Woodruff's Talladega murals

Woodruff begins the series with the chaotic Mutiny on the Amistad (Fig. 2). The Africans wield machete-like sugar cane knives, all raised and threatening, but here bloodless. For his composition, Woodruff borrowed from a print reproduction of a 135-foot-long panorama that toured the East Coast in 1840 and depicted the mutiny more gruesomely.6

Woodruff's composition also borrows from Théodore Géricault's Raft of the Medusa (1818-1819), an epic painting about another disaster at sea. A slain captive in the lower right corner of the mutiny canvas echoes the corpse in the foreground of the Géricault. Woodruff placed Cinqué left of center, battling the cook, whose malicious taunts-telling the Africans that they were to be killed and eaten upon arrival-are believed to have incited the rebellion. We see the cook from behind, as with the captain, wearing a green hat, on the right. Heydt suggests that Woodruff did not show their faces so as not to humanize them or arouse sympathy in the viewer.

With rows of faces and repeated folds of fabric that create a visual rhythm throughout the composition, the orderliness of The Trial of the Amistad Captives (Fig. 3) contrasts, appropriately, with the havoc of the mutiny panel. Visual clues are carried from one scene to the next. For example, the green hat and blue shirt worn by the murdered captain and cook appear again in the courtroom, displayed on the evidence table at center, along with the knives used in the attack.

The pivotal courtroom scene fills the twenty-foot-wide canvas. A group of twenty-six Africans is gathered on the left, fronted by Arthur Tappan, Simeon Jocelyn, and defense attorney Roger Baldwin. The young black man in the right foreground is James Covey, a freed slave who spoke Mende and was called on to translate the proceedings. The gray-haired Lewis Tappan is seated just behind him. To create the Africans' likenesses, Woodruff relied on court drawings and other documents, as well as an 1840 oil portrait of Cinqué by the Reverend Nathaniel Jocelyn, brother of Simeon. Amid the crowd of faces on the left, Woodruff snuck in a portrait of himself, chin resting in hand. It is a poignant reminder of how the trial's outcome affected the lives of succeeding generations of slaves and freedmen.

The right panel features The Repatriation of the Freed Captives, showing Cinqué and other survivors back on African soil, accompanied by white missionaries (Fig. 4). Dressed in western attire, the freedmen are now educated. They are bearing books and, in the lower right corner, what might be a printing press. A discovery made during conservation was that an adze placed in front of Cinqué was originally painted as a rifle, whose butt is still visible beneath the framed edge, indicating that the change was made after the murals were installed. Who made the change and why remains unknown. While presented as a happy ending, the story that this scene and most other accounts do not tell is that the Africans returned to a country embroiled in civil war. Cinque's own family is believed to have been killed or sold into slavery, and some unverified accounts have him becoming a slave trader himself. While tragic, that outcome cannot diminish the heroic efforts of Cinqué and the political and social impact of the Amistad saga.

From 1940 to 1942 Woodruff worked on the founding murals, which commemorate the role of the AMA in the establishment of Talladega College. Perhaps because the imagined scenes are compilations of events, or because the compositions are not as dynamic or the colors as bold, they do not have the same emotional or visual impact as the Amistad trio.

The series begins with The Underground Railroad, set in 1851(Fig. 5). One of three white men, who are offering assistance to a group of escaped slaves, extends a letter addressed to Arthur Tappan of Connecticut, the Amistad abolitionist who will presumably provide shelter. On the lower left, a female figure wearing a head scarf turns away from the viewer. Heydt likens her to a prophetess from Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel,7 but she also has the demure posture of the central figure in Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres's Valpinçon Bather (1808). In the background a black man on horseback tears down a sign reading "Runaway Slave Reward $400." Heydt notes that the sign indicates that the slave owner offering the reward lived in Talladega, though the text would have been difficult to read with the murals installed overhead.8

All manner of activity is taking place across the expansive central panel, Opening Day at Talladega College (Fig. 6). A banner announcing the school's opening indicates the year, 1867, just two years after the end of the Civil War. Members of the AMA are on site to register students and train teachers. Standing at the center is a black man, identified by Woodruff as William Savery, who gestures to the library that is named for him. The scene is tame by comparison, but to convey the significance of the school and its transformative effect on the lives of African-Americans was no doubt a challenge.

The Building of Savery Library (Fig. 7) is a busy scene filled with black and white figures working together on the structure. While the scene is one of racial harmony and collaboration, Heydt suggests that Woodruff chose to depict the library in an unfinished state as a metaphor for the civil rights work yet to be done.

What would Woodruff paint if he were commissioned today? From the achievements of the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II to the race riots of the 1960s, Rodney King and Barack Obama, the work continues.

 

STEPHANIE CASH is an art writer based in Atlanta.

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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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