Commentary: There are shockingly few art world tributes to Martin Luther King

Charlie Finch,, 1/13/12

Dr. King's sense of command and his radical, courageous purpose has always made him a far older visage in the images that survive him, and this might explain why there are shockingly few art world tributes to him, from African American and non-African American artists alike. The most frequent online art references related to Dr. King are confined to the wonderful idea of a "Martin Luther King" coloring book, which, at first thought, might just be Duke Ellington's famous suite Black, Brown and Beige, but, when given up to the rainbow crayons of kindergarten kids, might approximate Glenn Ligon's colorful drag portrait of Malcolm X. Of course, one could argue that contemporary news photos of Dr. King are all that we need, yet Andy Warhol never painted him (he did the race riots though); nor has Elizabeth Peyton. This is odd, since Martin Luther King is the most formidable, handsome and compelling subject in American history, one who should be explored by fine artists everywhere and not surrendered to the clumsy Sino-centric mistake of a statue in Washington, D.C. This is due to the fact that America was never comfortable enough to really appreciate the man King with the warmth of those who called him, to his face, "Doc." The literary and artistic projection onto other victims of the gun, such as John and Robert Kennedy, have so far been denied Dr. King, whose unique secret was the he always transcended race during his lifetime -- not just via posterity -- and paid for that with his life.  It would be nice to see a man, memorialized in typically perverse American fashion on a cold day in January, which is mostly ignored, rather than a hot day in July, become the hottest subject among artists.


Transmedia art project aims to represent, redefine black male identity in America   Kathleen Massara,, 1/16/12   As we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, it's important to remember that we still have a long way to go in the fight against racial discrimination. An exhibition that confronts stereotypes and attempts to bridge divisions between people is "Question Bridge: Black Males" -- a video installation that consists of a series of interviews with Black men in the United States today. The Question Bridge is being exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum (Jan 12- Jun 3), the Oakland Museum of California (Jan 21 - July 8), the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art (Jan 20- May 19), Atlanta's Chastain Art Gallery (Jan 27 - March 17) and the Sundance Film Festival (Jan 19 - 29th). Chris Johnson and Hank Willis Thomas, two of the collaborators -- along with Bayeté Ross Smith and Kamal Sinclair - [talked] about their project, which originally began as a response to the 1996 Republican convention in San Diego. In 2007, Hank Willis Thomas helped to revive the Question Bridge interviews, and it evolved into the exhibition on view today. [They also launched a website, which Johnson and Thomas said] "became a practical necessity once our team discovered that we had far more content than could possibly be contained in a conventional documentary or museum installation.... It provides a way for people everywhere to become "privileged witnesses" of the Question Bridge process. We know that once people see and hear what these men have to say, it will affect their ability to treat black men as a homogenous group [and] it provides us with a way to invite black men from all parts of our culture to participate in this process of with their own questions and answers. Once those men join the process, their presence will create a self-defining Identity Map that will function as a unique database of how black men view and define themselves... as opposed to the prevalent images that are routinely projected onto them. There is also a strong community outreach element of the overall project that includes smart posters at what we're calling Hot Spots that contain QR codes and NFC tags that will allow people out in the world to connect to QB content via the website."


As we remember Dr. King, don't forget Stevie Wonder's role in creating MLK Day

The Guardian [UK] newspaper, 1/8/12

In an extract from his memoir written before he died last year, musician Gil Scott-Heron talks about when he toured with Stevie Wonder to establish Martin Luther King Day as a national holiday in the US:

You might forget that Dr Martin Luther King, Jr was shot and killed on a motel balcony on April 4, 1968. Stevie Wonder did not forget. In 1980, Stevie joined with the members of the Black Caucus in the US congress to speak out for the need to honor the day King was born, to make his birthday a national holiday. The campaign began in earnest on Halloween of 1980 in Houston, with Stevie's national tour supporting a new LP featuring the song "Happy Birthday," which advocated a holiday for King. I arrived in Houston to join the tour as the opening act. [By January 15, 1981], King's birthday, I was on the Washington DC monument grounds [at a rally organized by Stevie Wonder]. I looked out at perhaps 50,000 people standing shoulder-to-shoulder across the expanse of the Mall, chanting: "Martin Luther King Day, we took a holiday!" Stevie stepped up to the mic and addressed them:

"It's fitting that we should gather here, for it was here that Martin Luther King inspired the entire nation and the world with his stirring words, his great vision both challenging and inspiring us with his great dream. People have asked, 'Why Stevie Wonder, as an artist?' Why should I be involved in this great cause? I'm Stevie Wonder the artist, yes, but I'm Steveland Morris, a man, a citizen of this country, and a human being. As an artist, my purpose is to communicate the message that can better improve the lives of all of us. I'd like to ask all of you just for one moment, if you will, to be silent and just to think and hear in your mind the voice of our Dr Martin Luther King ..."

Somehow, years later, it seems that Stevie's effort as the leader of this campaign has been forgotten. But it is something that we should all remember. Just as surely as we should remember April 4, 1968, we should celebrate January 15th. And we should not forget that Stevie remembered.

> FROM TC: In an audio slideshow, Heron's friend Jamie Byng tells the story of the campaign tour with Stevie Wonder which helped create today's US national holiday for Martin Luther King.

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