The Spiral Group – New Artists Familiar Struggle
By George Kevin Jordan
Harlem is constantly changing. Harlem is the same as it always was. Harlem is new. Harlem is old. Harlem has been taken over by gentrifiers. Harlem is as black as it has ever been. Harlem is so expensive. Harlem is a hollowed out dream of renaissances and movements past.
As a resident of Harlem (off and on for over 12 years) I am amazed at how many labels are thrown at this tiny neighborhood with a worldwide reach. But one thing that is not up for debate is how this place is an incubator for artists. The names of black writers, painters, musicians, filmmakers pour down like much needed summer showers.
Zora Neale Hurston, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong, and James Baldwin are just a few members of the collective quilt that covers this neighborhood. How could they not be inspired. Just try to walk down famous 125th street and ignore the living canvas. Everything has a rhythm, a beat that connects with everything else. Even the buses bop at their own pace chugging down the road in two step.
Is it any wonder in 1963, in this very neighborhood, that a group of artists got together to discuss how their work added to the conversation being had about social justice in this world. Well, it wasn’t just conversations.
The U.S. was reaching the apex of the civil rights movements. The cost of freedom was heavy. Beatings, fires, bombings in Birmingham, all culminating in the Kennedy administration pushing massive civil rights legislation forward this same year.
There was a humongous March on Washington in support of jobs and freedom for African Americans. And thus the Spiral Group was born. Formed by Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis, Charles Alston and Hale Woodruff, the group was initially started to help organize transportation to the rallies in DC. The artists in the group were moved to come together and discuss their own engagement in the struggle for civil rights, even though each found engagement in a different way. The collective allowed for a shared response to the courage that defined the struggle for civil rights.
What is the role of the artist in the fight for social justice? It isn’t like the above artists didn’t reference the black plight in their work. Bearden’s collage work constantly references civil rights and the black struggle. Mr. Lewis pushed themes of blackness through abstract and expressionist paintings. But where does the line of artist end and activist begin? Should there be a line in the first place?
This week these questions are still being asked, just with a new group of artists as they gather for a special exhibit and discussions during the March on Washington Film Festival 12th – 14th at the Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Street, NW, Washington D.C. 20005. But this fight was not for Harlem Artists, or even D.C. artists alone. This was a national and international call to action and activism.
Spiral Now – 55 Years in the Making brings new artists back to familiar struggles, as they take up the mantle, burden, and honor of fighting for social justice in the black community.
Contemporary artists include Lavett Ballard, Kevin Cole, Shaunte Gates, Claudia Gibson Hunter, Jamaal Barber Charly Palmer, Michael McCoy, Ronald Walton, and Black Art In America CEO and Founder Najee Dorsey.
This new group’s work is no less compelling adding video and multimedia into the forms of art explored. But the urgency and questions remain the same.
What all these artists have in common is an affliction. An affliction of a culture and society still determined to destroy black lives. An apathy still swaddles the american aesthetic clamouring to make America Great Again by pushing African-Americans back into the Jim Crow era. If you blink you might miss the eradication of voting laws and affirmative action legislation and other tools once used to protect blacks, that are now withered to the bone or gone altogether.
According to BAIA Hale Woodruff Spiral suggested the name “Spiral” references the Archimedean spiral that ” moves outward, embracing all directions, yet continually moving upward.” It also represented them as a group of individual artists of diverse creative expressions, finding a common voice to address issues of cultural and social concern to all of them.”
Mr. Dorsey will moderate two panel discussions, one Friday and one Saturday. And the work of both legendary and contemporary artists will be on display and for sale.
Even though the artists gathering at the event are from all over the world, their mission is still timeless. We fight to be seen. We fight to have our stories seen. We fight to stay alive. The artist life is an act of courage just by showing the world as it is, or at least hopes to be.
In 1961 Studs Terkel interviewed James Baldwin on his program “The Almanac” and Mr. Baldwin said this of art:
“Art has to be a kind of confession. I don’t mean a true confession in the sense of that dreary magazine. The effort it seems to me, is: if you can examine and face your life, you can discover the terms with which you are connected to other lives, and they can discover them, too — the terms with which they are connected to other people. This has happened to every one of us, I’m sure. You read something which you thought only happened to you, and you discovered it happened 100 years ago to Dostoyevsky. This is a very great liberation for the suffering, struggling person, who always thinks that they are alone. This is why art is important. Art would not be important if life were not important, and life is important.”
Let’s hope we can as a people we continue to confess our stories and continue to call it out when our stories are being silenced or snuffed away. As artists, and as humans.
Featured Imaged: Harlem on My Mind by Reginald Gammon
George Kevin Jordan
is a journalist and author. He currently serves as executive editor of Bleu Magazine, a multicultural men’s brand for millennials. He divides his time between New York and D.C.
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