Thanks to an unprecedented gift from Adelaide de Menil and Edmund Carpenter several years ago, the Menil Collection received a trove of more than 200 original images of the Civil Rights Movement taken by legendary photojournalists like Dan Budnik, Danny Lyon and Elliott Erwitt.
With its 2011 exhibit The Whole World Was Watching, the Menil pulled selections of the donation to highlight the integral role art can play in advocating for social change — an idea long at the heart of John and Dominique de Menil's collecting practices and a core belief in the founding of their eponymous museum.
"These photographs seemed to represent the apex of the Civil Rights era at first glance," says Hewitt. "But there's an intri guing subtext."
The exhibition showed artists producing work not from the comfort of their studios, but on the front line of tense sit-ins, violent Ku Klux Klan rallies and long marches from Selma to Montgomery. For most media-saturated Americans, then and now, these pictures are the quintessential record of the Civil Rights era.
"These are some of the most iconic images from the movement," says artist Leslie Hewitt, who used the photo collection as the basis for her current Menil installation Untitled (Structures), bridging that rocky terrain between art and history along the way.
"When the Menil first invited us to create a project from their archive, these photographs seemed to represent the apex of the Civil Rights era at first glance. But there's an intriguing subtext as you start finding pictures as early as the 1940s and as late as 1980. When you think about that timeframe in relation to those classic 1960s images, there's a whole new story that emerges . . . It's the story of the Great Migration."
Working with Sundance Award-winning cinematographer Bradford Young, Hewitt has fleshed out these subtle histories by filming buildings associated with both the Civil Rights Movement and the Great Migration, a period stretching from roughly 1910 to 1970 when more than six million African-Americans left the South for opportunities in the North and West.
"We wanted to explore th at tension between Civil Rights and the Great Migration, by examining the relationship between still photography and a moving image."
For the last two years, Young and Hewitt shot on location in Arkansas, Chicago and Memphis — bringing these forgotten offices, apartment complexes and farm fields back to life in non-digital 35mm film.
The resulting images are projected across two screens arranged in the corner of a darkened room at the Menil. The footage is so still at times, you only realize you're not staring at photographs until a slight breeze catches a window curtain in an old house or a small bird flies across the sky.
"We wanted to explore that tension between Civil Rights and the Great Migration, by examining the relationship between still photography and a moving image."
Hewitt says that while she and Young come from different artistic backgrounds, they found common ground in their interests in architecture and sculpture, both of which are apparent in the installation. But it was the artist's shared perspectives on the art of history that brought the project to light.
"While we've found that we ask many of the same questions artistically, it's storytelling that plays an important role for each of us. Even though we've seen many of the Menil's Civil Rights images in magazines and books, you can experience them in this very real and expansive way. That's been our entry into the project from the start."
Untitled (Structures) will be on view at the Menil Collection through May 5.