, Newburyport, MA

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June 20, 2013

'Visual conversations'

PEM exhibit connects art, race and American culture


In another conversation starter, gallery walls are inscribed with groups of quotations from African-American writers and intellectuals, on themes addressed by the show.

“My first line in my class and the last line 12 months later is if there are 40 million black Americans, then there are 40 million ways to be black,” wrote Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.

It’s a notion that echoes from the many portraits of individual African-Americans in this show, each unique in their character and situation.

“Soundscapes” are also incorporated into the show at several spots, projecting commentary, music or atmospheric sounds into the gallery.

Near a photo of “Ali Jumping Rope” by Gordon Parks, for example, visitors can hear part of a broadcast from Muhammad Ali’s early bout with Sonny Liston, followed by the sound of his jump rope slapping the floor as he trained, then answers he gave in an interview on topics of race and religion. It reminds us that we were almost as accustomed to hearing Ali, whether he was reciting poetry or taunting opponents and broadcasters, as we were to seeing him box.

Whether we connect what we hear to Parks’ photograph or to our own memories of The Greatest of All Time, as Ali called himself, our ears create a new “image” in which Ali the fighter and Ali the orator are united by patterns of sound.

Hartigan alluded to such connections throughout the exhibit, as images “calling and responding” to each other. Call and response is a structure shared by blues, jazz and other musical forms with African roots, in which themes are shared by solo performers and a group or chorus.

It’s a notion that helps viewers appreciate the unique way images complement and amplify each other in this show, as they address topics of family, work, spirituality and individual identity.

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