Birmingham Museum of Art explores African-American aesthetic of 'Spiral'

A landmark movement in African-American art will receive a long-overdue spotlight, thanks to the Birmingham Museum of Art.

Today through March 6, 18 paintings by Spiral, a group of artists that came together at the height of the Civil Rights movement, will be shown at the museum's Bohorfoush Gallery in "The Spiral Collective." The exhibit is the first since the group's sole exhibition, "Black and White" was shown in 1965.

"It's astonishing," said Emily Hanna, BMA's curator of African and American art. "Any survey about African-American art will show a few paintings about Spiral and include the artists. Of all the people I have interviewed, nobody has pulled these works together.

"Included are works by Spiral members Romare Bearden, Reginald Gammon, Charles Alston, Norman Lewis, Hale Woodruff, Richard Mayhew and Emma Amos. They explore issues of race and black aesthetics, community obligation and artistic freedom. Formed in New York in the early 1960s, the group wasn't always harmonious in their aesthetic viewpoints, but were united in their mission.

"They were facing racism in the art world," Hanna said. "They couldn't find places to exhibit their work, so they came together in solidarity and talked about what a black aesthetic means.
"One work from the "Black and White" show, Gammon's "Freedom Now," is included in the BMA show. It is a direct reference to the civil rights struggle.

"He was inspired by the iconic photographs of marchers, dogs and hoses that were being published all over the country and internationally," said Hanna. "At the top of the painting you see the feet and legs of children marchers in white socks and tennis shoes.

"Gammon's "Scottsboro Boys" is a poignant view of the nine inmates consulting with a lawyer and two guards looking on.

Other works are less overt in their subject matter. Alston's "Cry Beloved Country," a recent purchase by the museum's Sankofa Society, evokes African imagery. Norman Lewis and Romare Bearden veer toward abstraction.