SALEM, MA  -- The story of one of America's most dramatic periods of social change, from the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s to the Civil Rights era of the 1960s and beyond, is told through a superlative collection of paintings, photographs and sculpture opening this summer at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM). In Conversation: Modern African American Art is drawn from the Smithsonian American Art Museum and features more than 100 works by 43 prominent artists, from Benny Andrews' depictions of the agrarian south to Gordon Park's vision of urban life. The exhibition is on view at PEM from June 1 through September 2, 2013.

Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, PEM's James B. and Mary Lou Hawkes Chief Curator, was formerly chief curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where she helped build this distinctive collection of African American art. "These works are fundamental to deepening and broadening our nation's understanding of American art and of the American experience," says Hartigan, the exhibition's coordinating curator. "Working as influencers, interrogators and innovators, 20th-century African American artists have given vivid form to stories of individualism, community and the search for cultural change and spiritual meaning."

From documentary realism to painterly expressionism, the artworks reflect a century characterized by immense political and personal struggle and reveal intensely emotional interchanges between the artists and the events unfolding around them. The exhibition is organized into "conversations" -- about beauty, dignity, belonging and relationships -- that inform why these artists sought to challenge, change and critique American culture, as well as portrayals of the black experience. Throughout the exhibition, select artworks are activated by "soundscapes" that incorporate music, voices, historical commentary as well as environmental and atmospheric sounds.

The evocative photograph, Ali, by Gordon Parks, portrays legendary boxer Muhammad Ali  jumping rope in the gym, feet off the ground.  His back to the camera, Ali observes his reflection in a full- length mirror. The soundscape brings the image and Ali to life by mixing and sequencing the training sounds of boxing with audio from his 1965 fight with Sonny Liston, in which the announcer describes Ali's agility in the ring, as well as a recording of Ali's voice during a landmark interview.  

A nuanced soundscape adds context and cultural understanding to Thornton Dial's 1992 mixed-media work, Top of the Line (Steel). In this piece, Dial -- a former migrant farmer and steelworker -- recreates the frenzied streets following the riots sparked by Rodney King's beating. News reporting from the Los Angeles riots and the sharp sound of steel-working is juxtaposed with the figures of Dial's work -- made from industrial and household objects -- that swirl in a dense field of color and line, grasping at pieces of automobiles and air conditioners. Sounds of steelworking and protest along with a modern remix of the iconic folksong John Henry, the legendary steel driver, will resonate with Frederick Brown's painting John Henry and Melvin Edwards' welded steel sculpture, Tambo, of the late South African political leader, both on view nearby.

In the 1920s, Roy DeCarava made a name for himself during the fertile years of the Harlem Renaissance. He became the first African American photographer to win a Guggenheim Fellowship and went on to collaborate on a book with Langston Hughes. DeCarava was also a photojournalist for Life and Newsweek and created signature portraits of Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.  In Conversation features eight of DeCarava's works, including his unforgettable close-up portrait of a resolved Southern woman marching in Washington, D.C., during the Civil Rights Movement.

The ongoing fight for dignity and justice filled the air in 1966 when John Biggers painted Shotgun, Third Ward #1. Biggers has said that the identical shotgun-style houses with their porches and gables, represent "Southern life for black people." A rash of church bombings in neighborhoods across the South may have prompted this painting. Depicting children at play in the street, oblivious to the burned-out church behind them, Biggers creates a feeling of hope. As his career progressed, Biggers focused less on the injustices around him and more on the universal human experience.

Curatorial Credit
Virginia M. Mecklenburg, chief curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, is organizing curator of In Conversation: Modern African American Art. Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, The James B. and Mary Lou Hawkes Chief Curator of the Peabody Essex Museum, is coordinating curator.

Organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum with generous support from Alston & Bird, Amherst Holdings LLC, Diane and Norman Bernstein Foundation, Larry Irving and Leslie Wiley, William R. Kenan Jr. Endowment Fund, Clarence Otis and Jacqui Bradley and PEPCO. The C.F. Foundation in Atlanta supports the museum's traveling exhibition program, Treasures to Go.

The presentation of this exhibition is made possible by the East India Marine Associates of the Peabody Essex Museum.

WEDNESDAY, MAY 29, 2013 | 6:30 PM - 9 PM
Please join us for an evening preview reception celebrating the opening of In Conversation. RSVP to Linnea DiPillo by Wednesday, May 22 by emailing or calling 978-542-1628.

Media Partner
WBUR, Boston's NPR news station

John Biggers, Shotgun, Third Ward #1, 1966, tempera and oil, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase made possible by Anacostia Museum, Smithsonian Institution

Exhibition Related events
June 1 and 2, join PEM for the opening weekend celebration of In Conversation featuring talks, drop-in art activities, storytelling and more.
June 1  |   1-2 pm  |  All Jazzed Up  |  Morse Auditorium  
Presentation: Join Eric Jackson from Boston jazz radio and host of WGBH's Eric in the Evening as he delves into the connections between African American visual artists of the 20th century and their counterparts in jazz. Reservations by May 29.
June 1 and 2  |  2:15-3 pm  | EDGEWORKS Dance Theater Performance  | Atrium
Select dancers from this all-male company challenge and affirm perceptions of male identity, revealing strength and vulnerability. Featuring the work of Artist Director Helanius J. Wilkins and other internationally recognized choreographers.
June 1 | 3:15-4:30 pm | Presentation: In Conversation...Onstage |Morse Auditorium
Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, The James B. and Mary Lou Hawkes Chief Curator, Richard Powell, art history professor at Duke University and co-author of the In Conversation exhibition catalog, and In Conversation artist Keith Morrison discuss the contributions of African American artists toward a larger American identity. Reservations by May 29.
June 20 | 6:30-9:30 pm|PEM/PM: Indivisible: We the People in Black, White and Gray  
Members and Salem residents free (with ID) | nonmembers $10  |  Cash bar  
Enjoy food, music, community and fun as The Tannery Series returns to PEM/PM, bringing great writers and a riveting presentation that explores the centrality of African American art and artfulness to the American identity.


High-resolution publicity images available for download at the following link:

Founded in 1799, the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) presents outstanding works of artistic and cultural creativity in ways that transform people's lives. The museum's collection is among the finest of its kind, showcasing an unrivaled spectrum of American art and architecture as well as outstanding Asian, Asian export, Native American, African, Oceanic, maritime and photography collections. In addition to its vast holding, the museum offers a vibrant schedule of changing exhibitions and an interactive education center. The museum campus features numerous parks, period gardens and 22 historic properties, including Yin Yu Tang, a 200?year?old house that is the only example of Chinese domestic architecture on display in the United States. Currently, a comprehensive $650 million Campaign is underway to advance PEM's mission, fortify its endowment, improve infrastructures and build a 175,000-square-foot expansion.

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PR Contacts:

Dinah Cardin  -  Press Officer / Special Projects Writer  -  978-542-1830  -

Whitney Van Dyke  -  Director of Communications  -  978-542-1828  -

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