Art

Galleries | Cate McQuaid

In photos, protest comes in quiet acts of witnessing

Danny Lyon’s “Cotton Pickers”
Danny Lyon/Magnum Photos
Danny Lyon’s “Cotton Pickers”

In December 1968, scores of African-American students at Brown University walked out and holed up in a church, prompting the school to work to increase black enrollment, staff, and financial aid. The Brown Arts Initiative marks that action’s 50th anniversary with “On Protest, Art & Activism,” a slate of lectures, performances, and exhibitions. 

At David Winton Bell Gallery, “Danny Lyon: The Only Thing I Saw Worth Leaving” spotlights a keen-eyed photographer and filmmaker who for decades has immersed himself among his subjects.

Curator Allison Pappas weaves together several bodies of work: photographs of prisoners in Texas, biker gangs, and demolition in lower Manhattan. Throughout, in mostly black-and-white images of men performing and reflecting, Lyon contemplates the effort to live up to ideals of manhood. 

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But the men in his photos of the civil rights movement have a different struggle. In images such as “The March on Washington, August 28, 1963” and “James Baldwin addresses a packed mass on Freedom Day,” Lyon shines light on their dignity, pride, and humanity.

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He revisited race in his prison series, “Conversations With the Dead.” Most of the men bowing down to gather cotton in “Cotton Pickers” are black, an echo of slavery a century on, and a sobering backdrop to the noble civil rights images.

Sue Julien’s “A Woman Was a Woman” at the Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts features glowing digital prints of drawings photographed through a lightbox. These portraits read like shadows against monochromatic grounds.

“Cora Ramey” depicts the artist’s grandmother, whose “often angry husband” died young, per accompanying text, enabling her to enjoy a career taking care of other people’s babies. “She was fun,” Julien concludes.

Other portraits laud better-known women — Mary Magdalene, Betty Shabazz. But the effect is the same. In these exhibitions, protest comes in quiet acts of witnessing. 

DANNY LYON: The Only Thing I Saw Worth Leaving

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At David Winton Bell Gallery, Brown University, 64 College St., Providence, through Dec. 19. 401-863-2932, www.brown.edu/bellgallery

 

A WOMAN WAS A WOMAN

At Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts, Brown University, 154 Angell St., Providence, through Dec. 19. 401-863-1934, arts.brown.edu

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.