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LAVA THOMAS MUGSHOT PORTRAITS: WOMEN OF THE MONTGOMERY BUS BOYCOTT

LAVA THOMAS MUGSHOT PORTRAITS: WOMEN OF THE MONTGOMERY BUS BOYCOTT RENA BRANSTEN GALLERY

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LAVA THOMAS MUGSHOT PORTRAITS: WOMEN OF THE MONTGOMERY BUS BOYCOTT

SEPT 8 - OCT 27, 2018

Published by Rena Bransten Gallery All artwork © 2018 Lava Thomas Essay © 2018 Leigh Raiford Design by China Langford ISBN 978-0-692-17406-7

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Euretta F. Adair

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Lava Thomas’ Mugshot Portraits: Women of the Montgomery Bus Boycott By Leigh Raiford

For many, the modern civil rights movement (1954-1968) appears as a series of historical images that flash before us: white policemen and firefighters unleashing fire hoses and police dogs on well-dressed black protesters; interracial groups marching towards us with linked arms and mouths poised in collective song; Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering the “I Have a Dream” speech set against a faceless sea of people gathered in the nation’s capital; or King’s compatriots standing over his slain body at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, pointing in concert towards the source of the fatal bullet. That these images are so indelible half a century later underscores the triumph of photography, employed by organizers as a key tool of civil rights movement strategy, a means of asserting control over the narratives of the movement and the image of its participants. Yet despite the proliferation—and continual discovery—of photographs documenting this country’s “Second Reconstruction,” our histories have largely centered male leadership and many stories have remained untold. This is especially so of the countless black women and girls who put their bodies on the line for justice in ways both large and small. Lava Thomas’ “Mugshot Portraits: Women of the Montgomery Bus Boycott” commemorates twelve of the several women arrested during the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56. By transforming the mugshots taken during their arrests into individual, slightly larger-than-life (47 x 33.25 inches) conté pencil and graphite portraits, Thomas “addresses the dearth of commemorative artworks” and “histories dedicated to women of the civil rights movement.” She reminds us that, “If black women,” like Jo Ann Robinson (represented in this series, p. 17), “hadn’t written about their own experiences we wouldn’t know about [them].”1 Rosa Parks (p. 9) is, of course, the most well-known of this group of women. Popular history celebrates her (planned) heroic act of civil disobedience on December 1, 1955, for sparking the 13-month boycott, launching the career of a young Dr. King, stoking the fires of the modern civil rights movement and setting in motion the (as yet unfinished) project of dismantling Jim Crow segregation. But through Thomas’ own research, here we are introduced to Lottie Green Varner (fig. 1, p. 25), Alberta J. James (p. 19), the young Addie J. Hamerter (p. 15) and others, organizers who turned themselves in to Montgomery police in February 1956 when they learned they were to be arrested for their prominent roles coordinating the boycott. These women represent a fraction of the thousands of black women whose labor and leadership—from organizing car pools, to preparing meals for fundraising, to getting arrested—were vital to the boycott’s success. By featuring black women in the honorific tradition of portraiture, placing them at the center of their own frames, Thomas not only addresses the absence of black women in what remains a largely male-centered historiography of the movement, but encourages us to reconsider what we think we know of this history. Indeed, so many women participated in the Montgomery boycotts not simply for racial equality. Black women boycotted for over a year because, as the overwhelming majority of Montgomery’s bus ridership, they were sick of being physically molested and verbally abused by white bus drivers, police officers and other riders. Black women were not only on the front3

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lines of the civil rights movement, but their refusal to remain silent about the intersection of racial and gender discrimination, and their insistence on what historian Danielle McGuire has called “bodily integrity,” placed these issues at the frontlines of the movement as well.2 “Mugshot Portraits” works scrupulously to portray the bodily integrity of its subjects, to reflect the dignity and seriousness with which these women approached their activism. The mugshot, a photographic form that emerged out of the 19th century eugenics movement and aimed to visualize criminality as biological and rooted in racial difference, labors just as hard to deny and remove such dignity.3 It is a tension at the heart of this project that reveals the difficulty of rendering in full human detail those who have only come to historical visibility through public records explicitly meant to dehumanize.4 Thomas grapples with, and sometimes embraces, these dichotomies in illuminating and inventive ways. We might start with the striking visibility of Thomas’ fine line work—intentional, deliberate—which renders these women as highly regarded sitters rather than mechanically-reproduced subjects of the state. The purposeful clarity of each hair, each coat thread, each worry line, functions here as a steady etching of hisfig. 1 tory that needs to be carefully attended to. Further exceeding her source material, Thomas has accentuated eyes and hands, underscored a smirk or a side eye. The large-scale portraits, many times the size of a mugshot, are meant to be displayed so that our eyes look directly into theirs, a demand for mutual recognition. Thomas’ hand drawn portraits aren’t strictly faithful reproductions then. However they remind us that neither were the photographic mugshots, but rather an attempt to transmute black women into criminals. And the black women subjects adamantly refused such distortion at every turn. Through their choice to dress in their church attire rather than work clothes, through their unashamed comportment before the camera of the state, these women and so many like them transformed mugshots into portraits, asserted their individuality rather than “proving” a fictional racial essence. In the long tradition of those who have employed photography in the service of racial justice, from Frederick Douglass on, the women of the Montgomery Bus Boycott made these images into a true likeness of their proud commitment to the cause of freedom. fig. 2

Thomas’ choice of materials alerts us as well to the essential yet invisibilized role of black women in freedom struggles. Conté pencil (a combination of pigment and wax) and graphite pencil are each cost-effective and in the case of graphite, utilitarian, “more egalitarian,” a “foundational medium.” As Thomas notes, pencil on paper “draws our 4

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attention to the fragility of this history, the ease with which it can be erased.”5 Black women’s labor is fundamental here: the subjects’ work to make history, Thomas’ to narrate it. Like the steady rhythm of a protest song, we can hear the labor in this collection.6 Indeed, for me, it is difficult to discuss “Mugshot Portraits” without referencing Thomas’ tambourine installations. In these works, the artist replaces the drums of variously sized tambourines with mirrors, or differently colored translucent acrylic, or lambskin etched with words. In “Requiem for Our Mothers,” the pieces hang from above and sway gently, humming with the wind. In “Requiem for Charleston,” (fig. 2, p. 33) a memorial work in honor of the victims of the 2015 Charleston, South Carolina church shooting by a white supremacist, the tambourines’ placement on the wall in the form of a cross calls attention to their immobility and silence. The tambourine is generally an accompanying instrument, part of a larger ensemble that gives the choir its richness, its rhythm, fig. 3 its drive. It reminds us of the necessity of the small but powerful sound. It is a profoundly egalitarian instrument that requires little in the way of specialized skill or formal training, but rewards desire and commitment. The tambourine is the sound and instrument of the Beloved Community. The tambourine installations help us hear more carefully “Mugshot Portraits: Women of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.” To recognize the labor of black women in the freedom struggle as present and necessary if not always center stage. To note their refusal of dehumanization through a series of small but persistent choices. Thomas has made the visibility of her black women subjects into a powerful sound.

1

Lava Thomas, conversation with the author, Berkeley, California, May 23, 2018. Danielle McGuire, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance--A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power (NY: Vintage, 2011); see also Jo Ann Robinson and David Garrow, The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It: The Memoir of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987). 3 Allan Sekula, “The Body and the Archive,” October, Vol. 39 (Winter, 1986): 3-64. 4 Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe, Number 26 (volume 12, number 2), June 2008: 1-14. 5 Lava Thomas, “Contemporary Artists in Conversation with History: 1968,” Washington, DC, April 4, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TQTNi5wwrD0 6 I borrow here from Tina Campt, Listening to Images (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017). 2

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Euretta F. Adair 6

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7

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Rosa Parks 8

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9

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Mrs. A. W. West, Senior 10

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11

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Cora McHaney 12

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13

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Addie J. Hamerter 14

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15

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Jo Ann Robinson 16

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17

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Alberta J. James 18

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19

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Audrey Belle Langford 20

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21

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Ida Mae Caldwell 22

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23

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Lottie Green Varner 24

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25

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Mentha L. Johnson 26

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27

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Jimmie L. Lowe 28

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29

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Resistance Reverb: Movements 1 & 2, 2018, tambourines, leather, suede, Plexiglas, mirrored acrylic, mixed media, approx. 102 x 156 x 312 inches. Installation view, di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art, Napa, CA

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Requiem for Charleston (detail), 2016, tambourines, pyrographic calligraphy on lambskin, acrylic discs, mixed media, 76 x 77 x 2 3/8 inches. Collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

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PLATES Euretta F. Adair, 2018, graphite and conté pencil on paper, 47 x 33 1/4 inches p. 9 Rosa Parks, 2018, graphite and conté pencil on paper, 47 x 33 1/4 inches. Jenkins Johnson Collection p. 11 Mrs. A. W. West, Senior, 2018, graphite and conté pencil on paper, 47 x 33 1/4 inches p. 13 Cora McHaney, 2018, graphite and conté pencil on paper, 47 x 33 1/4 inches p. 15 Addie J. Hamerter, 2018, graphite and conté pencil on paper, 47 x 33 1/4 inches p. 17 Jo Ann Robinson, 2018, graphite and conté pencil on paper, 47 x 33 1/4 inches p. 19 Alberta J. James, 2018, graphite and conté pencil on paper, 47 x 33 1/4 inches p. 21 Audrey Belle Langford, 2018, graphite and conté pencil on paper, 47 x 33 1/4 inches p. 23 Ida Mae Caldwell, 2018, graphite and conté pencil on paper, 47 x 33 1/4 inches p. 25 Lottie Green Varner, 2018, graphite and conté pencil on paper, 47 x 33 1/4 inches. Collection of Pamela and David Hornik p. 27 Mentha L. Johnson, 2018, graphite and conté pencil on paper, 47 x 33 1/4 inches p. 29 Jimmie L. Lowe, 2018, graphite and conté pencil on paper, 47 x 33 1/4 inches p. 31 Resistance Reverb: Movements 1 & 2, 2018, tambourines, leather, suede, Plexiglas, mirrored acrylic, mixed media, approx. 102 x 156 x 312 inches. Installation view, di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art, Napa, CA p. 33 Requiem for Charleston (detail), 2016, tambourines, pyrographic calligraphy on lambskin, acrylic discs, mixed media, 76 x 77 x 2 3/8 inches. Collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum p. 7

FIGURES p. 2 fig. 1 fig. 2 fig. 3

Archival mugshot image of Euretta F. Adair Archival mugshot image of Lottie Green Varner Requiem for Charleston, 2016, tambourines, pyrographic calligraphy on lambskin, acrylic discs, mixed media, 76 x 77 x 2 3/8 inches. Collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. Installation view of the exhibition Looking Back and Seeing Now, 2015, Berkeley Art Center, CA

PHOTO CREDITS All Mugshot Portraits: Phillip Maisel

Archival mugshot images of Euretta F. Adair & Lottie Green Varner, courtesy of Montgomery County Archives Requiem for Charleston: Kija Lucas Resistance Reverb: Movements 1 & 2: Johnna Arnold, courtesy of di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art, Napa, CA Looking Back and Seeing Now (installation view): John Wilson White Production assistance by John Janca 34

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ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS My sincere thanks to Rena and Trish Bransten, Jenny Baie and China Langford of Rena Bransten Gallery for making this exhibition a reality. I am indebted to Dallas Hanbury, Archivist at the Montgomery County Archives, for the source images on which Mugshot Portraits are based. I am also indebted to the late Jo Ann Robinson, whose memoir, The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It, provided much of the content for this series and attests to the importance of women authoring their own stories. The space and uninterrupted time during my artist residency at Headlands Center for the Arts were much needed and are dearly appreciated, as were the many conversations with my fellow artists in residence as the project materialized. I’d also like to thank my circle of close friends, who helped enrich this work through important discussions about our country’s current political and racial climate, black women's activism, and our personal family histories and heritage. Many thanks go to Carol Wilson and E. Carmen Ramos of the Smithsonian American Art Museum for inviting me to speak about Mugshot Portraits during a panel discussion that commemorated the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. I am grateful to Leigh Raiford for her insightful catalogue essay and for our substantive conversations. Thanks as well to Nicholas Stone, who helped me articulate my thinking. A special thank you to my team—Project Manager Elizabeth Tanner, Studio Assistants Connie Lee and Melissa Bolger, and Research Assistant Danielle Luz Belanger, whose dedication and labor helped make this project possible. My deepest thanks go to my husband, Peter Danzig, for his absolute and unwavering support. Thanks also to my sons, Eren and August. My family is a profound source of support and encouragement. And lastly, a depth of gratitude goes to the women honored in these pages: Euretta F. Adair, Ida Mae Caldwell, Addie J. Hamerter, Alberta J. James, Menthe L. Johnson, Audrey Belle Langford, Jimmie L. Lowe, Cora McHaney, Rosa Parks, Jo Ann Robinson, Lottie Green Varner, and Mrs. A. W. West, Senior, and to the innumerable under acknowledged black women whose individual and collective acts of resistance remind us that we, too, have the power to shape the course of history. Lava Thomas 35

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LAVA THOMAS MUGSHOT PORTRAITS: WOMEN OF THE MONTGOMERY BUS BOYCOTT

LAVA THOMAS MUGSHOT PORTRAITS: WOMEN OF THE MONTGOMERY BUS BOYCOTT RENA BRANSTEN GALLERY

D57374_cover_v2.indd All Pages

8/31/18 9:48 AM

Lava Thomas / Mugshot Portraits: Women of the Montgomery Bus Boycott  

Published on the occasion of the exhibition "Lava Thomas / Mugshot Portraits: Women of the Montgomery Bus Boycott" at Rena Bransten Gallery,...

Lava Thomas / Mugshot Portraits: Women of the Montgomery Bus Boycott  

Published on the occasion of the exhibition "Lava Thomas / Mugshot Portraits: Women of the Montgomery Bus Boycott" at Rena Bransten Gallery,...

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