Third time should be the proverbial charm for Mobilians to catch the work of photographer Gordon Parks. When an exhibit on the photojournalist and multimedia artist opens at the Mobile Museum of Art (MMoA) Jan. 16, it will culminate a circuitous arrival.
Fitting, since it features work from Parks’ 1956 journeys into Mobile and Shady Grove, Ala., to document daily life under segregation. What the Life magazine photographer captured was deeper than its mesmerizing aesthetic beauty. Though possessed of a sublime, superficial stillness, each shot emotionally roils with sociological complexity stirred by weariness and frustration. Parks’ unsurpassable eye created iconography.
“I think we didn’t really grasp until the Black Lives Matter movement how timely this would be,” MMoA Director Deborah Velders said.
A similar show was in the works for downtown’s History Museum of Mobile in 2015. After a reorganizational shake-up at the museum, the idea wafted away.
“This wouldn’t be exactly the same show [as 2015] because the Gordon Parks Foundation rotates the photos, so they determine what you can have,” Velders said.
She inquired about a Parks show “about four or five years ago.” MMoA was pressed for funds so Mobile County Commissioner Merceria Ludgood lent fiscal support.
“She underwrote it and got the City Council to contribute,” Velders said.
The Altmayer Foundation has paid for school visits. Bishop State is challenging students to participate in part of the programming. Other cultural entities are pitching in as well.
Originally slated to open in August 2020, the pandemic overshadowed the spotlight MMoA sought. They arranged postponement through the Parks Foundation and circled yet another target date, its third in the last decade.
“This is too important a show,” Velders said.
Additional cultural cooperation manifested around one of the collection’s most famous images: teacher Joanne Thornton Wilson and her young niece underneath the Saenger Theatre’s “Colored Entrance” neon sign. The History Museum of Mobile is in possession of the neon hallmark and will lend it to MMoA for display next to the photo.
“There’s 20 photos, most big,” MMoA curator Stan Hackney said about the exhibit’s breadth in the downstairs gallery to the left of the entrance.
A wealth of programming and related exhibits are in store. A dance group is being commissioned to create a performance related to the show.
“We’d like to have the dance performed outside downtown like at Cathedral Square, maybe May before it’s too hot,” Velders said. The director has spoken with the Alabama Contemporary Art Center about serving as a site for a reception and maybe inclement weather locale.
Historians Scotty Kirkland and Sheila Flanagan have worked with Ludgood in expanding a pre-existing timeline of Mobile civil rights activity. Velders’ understanding is it’s the first time such an encompassing account has been assembled.
PowerLines Poetry will perform at some point. MMoA wants to screen some of Parks’ films in outdoor settings, parks mainly. Spoiler: That’s unlikely to include Parks’ 1971 Blaxploitation classic about a suave “private dick … who won’t cop out when there’s danger all about.” “Shaft” might be too violent.
All these programming dates will depend on the rise and fall of the pandemic.
Visitors will also encounter a video of a roundtable discussion between Ludgood, State Rep. Sam Jones, George Crenshaw and John “Red” Guy. It is set to be near the exhibit.
“We are planning on bringing a Virginia professor, John Edward Mason, [Ph.D.], who is writing a book on Parks as soon as it’s safe to bring him. [Councilor] John Williams wanted specifically to have him here,” Velders said.
If Mason can’t travel, virtual connections will be implemented. His upcoming book, “Gordon Parks and American Democracy,” specifically looks at how Parks’ Life work challenged definitions of citizenship in his day.
Of course, an opening soiree won’t be doable right now. Since the receptions between New Year and Mardi Gras are usually the most enjoyable — moods are lighter, everyone’s sporting nicer threads, it’s cozy inside — that’s an extra shame.
In a twist, museum entrance fees will be waived for all of opening day, so interested parties can take full advantage. Just bring masks. According to MMoA’s website, temperatures are taken upon entrance. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The irony of the pandemic opening precautions is that museums are ideal for social distancing.
“Even as a teenager in Washington, D.C., museums, I’d be sitting in a gallery alone all day. This idea of museums being crowded only happened after blockbusters,” Velders said.
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