If you’re too young to have lived through the civil rights movement, it’s likely your memory of it has been shaped by family stories, PBS documentaries, and, most of all, black-and-white news photos. So you may be forgiven for thinking the movement was all marches and speeches and angry mobs and acts of violence.
But when Leslie Hewitt, a New York-based visual artist who was born in 1977, visited the Menil Collection in Houston to look through its archive of civil rights-era photos, she noticed something else: shots of people in the quiet moments no one really remembers, standing on subway platforms or waiting in line.
Hewitt also noticed a similarity between those photos and Third Cinema, a film movement that emerged from African and Latin American countries recently liberated from colonialism. Third Cinema, like New Wave, tells the large stories of historical changes by concentrating on the smaller stories about how those changes affected the people who lived through them. It’s also had a strong influence on Hewitt’s own work.
For Untitled (Structures), an installation opening this week at the MCA, Hewitt and her collaborator, cinematographer Bradford Young, took a road trip to some key sites of the civil rights movement and the Great Migration—in Houston, Little Rock, Memphis, and Chicago—to re-create a few of the quieter moments in the Menil photos with actors in period costume. Instead of photography, though, they used cinema.
“There’s a sensation of standing in the moment, like we’re in the photo, or about to take a photo ourselves,” MCA curator Naomi Beckwith explains. “You see some movement—wind blowing a curtain, or someone blinking—but the movement is very quiet and incidental. . . . It looks like a memory. The actors look like ghosts.”
In Chicago, Hewitt and Young used, among other locations, the Rosenwald Apartments in Bronzeville, built in the 20s to provide affordable housing for African-Americans; 39th Street Beach, where a race riot broke out in 1912 after a black child attempted to swim there; and 820 S. Michigan, once the home of Johnson Publishing, which produced Ebony and Jet, now part of Columbia College.
“The civil rights movement was not just shot by Life and the New York Times,” Beckwith says. “It was also formed by publications like Ebony, from within the community.”
Hewitt and Young transferred their film to digital video and edited the footage into one 16-minute movie. At the MCA, it will run on two separate screens in continuous loops timed to create interesting juxtapositions. The screens are just slightly larger than human scale. The effect, says Beckwith, is similar to that of found photography: “The ghosts recall something, but they can’t give answers.
“It’s a very generational response to the history of the 40s through the 60s,” she continues. “We received history as a memory. We didn’t get a sense of the landscape or poetry. We didn’t get a sense of the lives of individuals. . . . There’s a need for this generation to scare up ghosts again.”