The Soul of Atlanta:

How a mostly forgotten artistic exchange facilitated Atlanta’s emergence as a global city

By D. Amari Jackson

Almost 40 years ago, in the autumn of 1983, a profound but mostly forgotten event had its beginnings in Atlanta. It occurred at a pivotal point in the city’s history, at the advent of a mid-1980s economic boom that motored the ongoing expansion of its international airport and saw Georgia’s economy grow at an average of 13 percent each year. Within this thriving backdrop, an exhibit of contemporary French art debuted in the city as part of the newly established International Arts and Cultural Exchange Program, an effort designed to raise the artistic and cultural profile of the rapidly growing southeastern city. Under the program—which corresponded with French President Francois Mitterrand’s 1984 visit to Atlanta and the introduction of Delta Air Lines’ nonstop flights from the city to Paris—French artists presented their works for display in Atlanta in exchange for the subsequent presentation of works by Atlanta-based artists in France.

In May 1985, a delegation of the city’s top administrators, art scholars, and prominent artists travelled to several major cities in France to present a series of exhibits and further establish the growing southern mecca as a global destination. The trip was a clear indicator that Atlanta’s time had come, both economically and culturally.

“For five weeks in Paris, Toulouse and Angouleme, this International Arts and Cultural Exchange will constitute our attempt to cement bonds between our two peoples, to share some of the joys of our own cultural achievements, and thank the French people for their abiding friendship and their contributions to Atlanta and our nation,” offered Atlanta mayor Andrew Young, at the time. “On behalf of the people of Atlanta, I take pride in introducing our city’s International Arts and Cultural Exchange Program to the people of the French Republic, and in presenting, through these exhibits, an experience of the soul of Atlanta.”

Numerous artists from the city, from a variety of ethnicities and walks of life, accompanied the delegation, exhibiting their works at the Chapelle de la Sorbonne, Espace de la Coupole la Defense in Paris; the Refectoire des Jacobins in Toulouse; and the Centre d’Action Culturelle in Angouleme. For those who attended, the experience was unforgettable.

“We went to events in Paris and then we had a flight down to Toulouse where we spent a couple of days,” recalls Dr. Michael D. Harris, Associate Professor Emeritus of Art History and African American Studies at Emory University in Atlanta. An award-winning photographer, mixed media artist, curator, and longtime member of AfriCOBRA, Harris exhibited several pieces while in Toulouse, including his quilt-based art. “The exhibition was in a repurposed, 13th-century monastery, which was fascinating,” says Harris, noting the majestic brick structure and how gallery walls had been erected inside for the event. “But then, above the wall, you had the soaring atria of the facility,” he continues, before concluding “it was a great honor, and I was so happy to be a part of it.”

Michael D. Harris
Mixed Media Artist; Professor of Art History, African American Studies

Throughout history, great societies and civilizations have commonly been symbolized by their culture and art. Ancient Egypt epitomized this tradition with its megalithic monuments, storied cosmologies, and ubiquitous imagery. These Africans were well-known to adorn their massive geometric structures, abodes, and burial chambers with vivid, indelible depictions of their daily existence and cosmogenic philosophies. Their art would subsequently be coveted and stolen by waves of conquerors seeking to imbue their own expanding societies with a sense of status, culture, and aesthetics.

Fast forward thousands of years to 1980s Atlanta where this quest for cultural status remains.

The city’s administration—consistent with the direction of its previous and pioneering mayor, Maynard Jackson—was wholly committed to ongoing development and they knew art was both a status symbol and a magnet. Along with Mayor Young and his top cultural affairs administrators, other prominent leaders and Atlanta icons played their role in supporting the international exchange and contributing to its success.

“It is with great pleasure that we at the King Center present this exhibit to the people of France,” offered Coretta Scott King, who, at the time, was president of the Martin Luther King Junior Center for Nonviolent Social Change. The King Center took part in the event given its international reputation and the popularity of its namesake in France both before and after his 1968 assassination. “It is our hope,” continued Coretta King, “that these items will serve as representative samples of our much larger Freedom Hall Complex in Atlanta, Georgia.”

But before the King Center contributed items to France, the French had already left their mark on the growing southern city. Along with the earlier artistic contributions by French artists, and the 1984 visit by the French president, 50 French companies already had operation bases in the Atlanta area; a French firm was responsible for making the original trains for the city’s urban mass transportation system, MARTA; and the city boasted a Franco-American Chamber of Commerce, a French Trade Commission office, and a growing community of French American citizens.     

Confrontation Tupelo, MS 1978 Photo By Jim Alexander

“The first step was that they brought the French artists to Atlanta,” acknowledges Harris, of the 1983 commencement of the exchange. “Then we went to France, and Andy Young and Shirley Cooks, who was then the head of the Bureau of  Cultural Affairs, were the main people involved.” Harris goes on to report that renowned African-American scholar of language and the arts, Richard Long, also travelled with the delegation. “Long was a prominent scholar here in Atlanta for many years and he was fluent in French and always travelling between Haiti and Paris. So he was very prominent on the trip and one thing I learned, whether we were on a plane, a bus or wherever, was to sit near Richard and wait for somebody to ask him a question because Richard was the most informed and brilliant person.” So, adds Harris, “I just learned to sit near him and wait.”

Other prominent Atlanta-based artists participated in the exchange by solely lending their works of art. Well-known photographer and activist, Jim Alexander, contributed several images to the effort, among them, Confrontation, his famous 1978 photo taken while at a Thanksgiving weekend rally protesting the Klan in Tupelo, Mississippi. In the image, part of the Struggle series, Mississippi activist Alfred “Skip” Robinson stands alone, hands on hips, mere feet from at least a half dozen robed klansmen, “cussing them out.”

“It was a city thing,” recalls Alexander, whose studio is now based in East Point, Georgia. He describes the mid-1980s cultural exchange as “more of a political program” implemented by the city’s political and cultural establishment. “They came and got some pictures from me, and I think that the High Museum of Art had a lot to do with it as well.”

Undoubtedly, the art of politics played a substantial role in the effort.

“The casual surreality of Atlanta art comes with the environment, with the nature of the city and its history,” penned Peter Morrin, curator of 20th century art at High Museum of Art, in his foreword to the Atlanta in France catalogue in 1985. “The rapidity of the city’s development and its high-powered real estate market means that a daily occurrence driving down one of the city’s thoroughfares is taking note of the changing skyline, what buildings no longer stand, what new ones are springing up.”

“Social inequities add to the startlingly unreal profile of Atlanta which has the largest and most prosperous black middle class in America, but is known to the mass media as the site of a series of brutal murders preying upon black children of low-income families,” continued Morrin, acknowledging the 30 slayings between 1979 and 1981 known as the Atlanta Child Murders. “Atlanta’s rolling economy in the midst of a state beset by the woes of low agricultural prices increases the sense of removal from common reality. Pockets of extreme naivete and extreme sophistication jostle against each other. These repeated contrasts and juxtapositions, which make up the fabric of urban life in this city, subtly and inevitably work their way into the city’s best art.”

Along with Morrin’s compelling entry, the 1985 catalogue included the works of 29 contemporary Atlanta artists and full-page introductions and commentaries from the likes of Mayor Young, Coretta Scott King, France’s Minister of Culture Jack Lang, Mayor of Toulouse Dominique Baudis, and Mayor of Angouleme Jean Michel Boucheron.

“Atlanta, at the time, was developing international sister-city relationships and because Andrew Young had been in the United Nations with Jimmy Carter, I think he really had an international vision,” explains Harris. “And I think that this is when Atlanta begins to imagine itself as an international city.”

“And then, of course, a decade later, we’ve got the Olympics coming here,” acknowledges Harris, promoting that “I would connect those two events to each other as a part of this continuum of development, and I think that Andy’s vision reflected that.”

“So this was a time of great optimism and expansion in the city.”

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AMARI JACKSON is a creator, author, TV/web/film producer, and award-winning journalist. He is author of the 2011 novel, The Savion Sequence; creator/writer/coproducer of the 2012-2014 web series The Book Look; writer/coproducer of the 2016 film Edge of the Pier; and current writer/coproducer of Listen Up! on HBCU GO/Roku TV. He is a former Chief of Staff for a NJ State Senator; a former VP of Communications & Development for the Jamestown Project at Harvard University; and a recipient of several writing fellowships including the George Washington Williams Fellowship from the Independent Press Association. An active ghost writer, song writer, martial artist, and journalist, his writings have appeared in a wide variety of national and regional publications.

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