Culture Report: Capturing Civil Rights Era Black Life in Southern California - Voice of San Diego

Arts/Culture UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

Culture Report: Capturing Civil Rights Era Black Life in Southern California

A new, free SDMA exhibition showcases three black photographers during the second half of the 20th century. Plus, the San Diego Festival of Books and more arts and culture news and happenings.

Muhammad Ali Stokely Carmichael
Guy Crowder, “Muhammad Ali and Stokely Carmichael, Los Angeles, 1973.” / Photo courtesy of Tom and Ethel Bradley Center, CSUN.

A new photography exhibition opens this weekend in the San Diego Museum of Art’s Fleming Gallery, an admission-free space adjacent to Panama 66. “Black Life: Resistance and Resilience in Southern California” features the work of three black photographers working in Southern California during the second half of the 20th century.

Curator Gaidi Finnie, board chair of the San Diego African American Fine Art Museum, which collaborated with SDMA on the exhibition, gathered works by Guy Crowder, Harry Adams and Charles Williams from the vast archives in Cal State University Northridge’s Tom and Ethel Bradley Center.

Changing Lives and Changing Photography

“This was a community that was changing,” said Finnie. “It’s not the slavery period, it’s not the reconstruction period, but this is the civil rights period coming up to where we are today.”

The photography in the exhibition aims to showcase a wide range of black life — historically significant moments but also daily, simple life — in the period running from the 1950s to the late 1980s. Finnie subdivided the exhibition into categories including activism, sports, entertainment and lifestyle.

Magic Johnson
Guy Crowder, “Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, and Michael Jordan, Los Angeles, 1989.” / Photo courtesy of Tom and Ethel Bradley Center, CSUN

More than an artifact, Finnie sees this exhibition as something very much alive, that continues to inspire. Plus, that period also encapsulated changes in the medium. “There was growth in photography,” he said. As photographers like Crowder, Adams and Williams were starting out, they didn’t have the luxury of photographing celebrities or prioritizing fine art photography.

“They had to do it to try to get paid and get someone to pay them, and there were no white publications paying them,” Finnie said.

Williams, a newspaper photographer, established the California School of Photography in order to jumpstart the careers of aspiring young photographers in the community, including Adams.

As the works in the exhibition approach the ‘70s, Finnie said, there are more pieces of famous sports figures and entertainers, and more fine art photography. As the photographers and the craft grew, so did their access to those subjects.

Black Art in a Major Balboa Park Institution

Harry Adams
Harry Adams, “Protest Car, Los Angeles, 1962.” Photo courtesy of Tom and Ethel Bradley Center, CSUN

“African American art is not an area in which this museum currently has a particularly strong collection,” said Anita Feldman, SDMA’s deputy director for curatorial affairs and education. Finnie and the San Diego African American Fine Art Museum had the “expertise but no venue,” Feldman said. The resulting exhibition is a collaboration and a joining of forces between institutions, along with the CSUN Tom and Ethel Bradley Center.

Finnie hopes that the exhibition — and its home in the free Fleming Gallery — will encourage San Diego’s black community and their visitors to experience the museum.

The Low-Cost Secret to SDMA’s 90 Percent Increase in Attendance

During roughly the last 5 years, SDMA has launched several programs that foster access to the museum’s collection and special exhibitions. The refurbished free Fleming Gallery also reaches a broader audience that includes people who might not otherwise enter the museum.

Fleming Gallery
Javier Marín sculptural installation in the SDMA Fleming Gallery earlier this year. / Photo by Julia Dixon Evans

In addition, the museum waives admission fees for school groups and youth, and their Friday night reduced admission ($5) is also free for college students. “We have definitely seen a great increase in attendance since we began these initiatives,” said Feldman. “Over 90 percent in the past 5 years.”

While the Fleming Gallery is separate from the museum’s primary space, it’s an expansion of the work into the community (along with their May S. Macy Sculpture Garden) and is integrated with Panama 66, a popular dining and drinking spot for locals and tourists alike. “I would argue that it is not off the beaten path,” said Feldman.

“Having an exhibition space that is free to the public is central to making the collection and our exhibitions more accessible,” she added.

“Black Life” is on display at SDMA from August 24 through December 1 and includes several special programs, like an opening celebration on August 29, a film screening of “Agents of Change” on September 13 and a conversation with Finnie and Keith Rice from the Bradley Center on October 26.

Third Annual San Diego Festival of Books

The Union-Tribune’s Festival of Books hits Liberty Station this Saturday, featuring Luis Alberto Urrea among a host of authors, literary stars and exhibitors. The day-long event is structured around panels and conversations, with plenty to do and see (and buy) outside of the panels, including author signings hosted by a variety of local bookstore tents. Last year’s festival attracted more than 20,000 book lovers.

The event is free, though each panel requires a $3 ticket to reserve a spot. Some panels are already selling out, and last year’s panels sold out completely. You can view a full panel schedule here.

(I’ll be part of a panel on writing fiction, along with novelist Samuel Halpern — aka the dad in the popular Twitter account “Shit My Dad Says” — and Kristina McMorris, moderated by Nina Garin.)

San Diego Festival of Books
Last Years San Diego Festival of Books. / Photo by Julia Dixon Evans

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Gill Sotu
Gill Sotu will appear at “Be About It.” / Photo by Cliff Endsley

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White Claw
The Casbah is hashtagging about White Claw. / Photo via Instagram

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