By Dr. Sara Hollis | The New Orleans Tribune
The huge colorful heroic murals that artist and professor Hale Woodruff painted at Talladega College between 1939 and 1942 are a remarkable accomplishment. And now through Sept. 14, they are on display at the New Orleans Museum of Art. The murals are powerful. As you enter the two large galleries on the second floor at NOMA, one is surrounded by the historical characters depicted in the murals. There is Cinque surrounded by his men, in the mural, “The Mutiny on the Amistad”. And then there is “The Trial of the Amistad Captives” and “The Repatriation of the Freed Captives”. Another vibrant mural is “The Underground Railroad”. The last-painted murals depict the founding of Talladega College, one of the earliest H.B.C.U.’s, in 1867, “Opening Day at Talladega College,” and finally, “The Building of the Savery Library.” Interspersed among the huge heroic murals are easel paintings also by Woodruff created during the same time period of the murals or shortly thereafter. The energy of his murals and his easel paintings seem to be trying to burst out of their frames and engulf the space around the viewers. You feel Hale Woodruff’s admiration for the men and women who fought for and gained their freedom and those visionaries who saw the role that higher education would play in the future and founded institutions like Talladega.
Woodruff himself taught at several universities over his academic career. He was highly trained as an artist and as a scholar having studied at the John Herron Art Institute in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1920; the Art Institute of Chicago; and after receiving prizes in the first Amy Springarn Contest and the Harmon Foundation’s first “Exhibition of the Work of Negro Artists,” he went on to study art in Paris for four years. When Woodruff returned from Europe, he founded the art curriculum for the Atlanta University Center where he taught students from Spellman College, Morehouse College, Clark College, Morris Brown College and Atlanta University. At one point he traveled to Mexico to study mural painting with Diego Rivera.
There are a number of programs planned in connection with the exhibition. In the current NOMA Arts Quarterly, director Susan M. Taylor says about this exhibition, “These works were recently conserved through a collaboration between Talladega College and the High Museum of Art…Visitors will find powerful and poignant images in these murals… An audio guide is planned for the presentation.”
A lavishly illustrated color catalog, Rising Up-Hale Woodruff’s Murals At Talladega College, by Dr. Stephanie Mayer Heydt, curator of American Art at the High, published by the High Museum in Atlanta, will be available in the New Orleans Museum of Art Bookstore/Gift Shop during the run of the exhibition. It contains contributions by Renee Ater, David C. Driscell, Larry Shutts and Juliette S. Smith. The Foreword to the catalog is by Dr. Billy C Hawkins, as President of Talladega College who states, “During my tenure at Talladega College since January 1, 2007, I have met many individuals who care deeply about these great works of art and are dedicated to their preservation. This great college has a long tradition of academic excellence, as demonstrated by its outstanding alumni and faculty, Woodruff being the perfect example. We are proud to make possible the conservation of these murals through this exhibition. It is a real pleasure to share our treasures with you.”
At the exhibition preview on May 15th, President Hawkins added the information that Talladega is planning a new museum on campus to house the murals once they return from their national tour of a number of cities. Mrs. Leah Chase also gave remarks and amused the audience of Talladega administrators and alumni as well as representatives of local HBCU’s by saying that she had met Hale Woodruff when he visited New Orleans in the early 1970’s and found him quite charming and certainly wished she had acquired an example of his art.
The public opening of the exhibition was the following evening with a panel discussion about the restoration, preservation, and exhibition of the Hale Woodruff murals featuring Stephanie Heydt, Curator of American Art at the High Museum and Philip Verre, Chief Operating Officer of the High Museum. Appropriate to the occasion were the walls of theNOMA Auditorium flanked by huge works by two giants of art in New Orleans, prints by the late John Scott, and drawings by Willie Birch.
This is an exhibition for everyone. But especially the children of New Orleans. The heroic figures in the three murals of the Amistad story speak of freedom. The underground railroad mural, and the mural of the founding of Talladega and the building of the Savery Library at Talladega where the murals were installed for 70 years, should inspire young students to aspire to a college education. I hope that all the summer camps in the city will put this on their list of field trips; and when school starts in the fall, more students will get the opportunity through school field trips. Other exhibitions of African-American art can be seen currently at the Contemporary Arts Center, Stella Jones Gallery, the McKenna Museum of African American Art, Le Musee and at Xavier, Dillard, and SUNO as well as Dooky Chase Restaurant.
The Amistad Research Center has Hale Woodruff’s papers. They are on display to the public there while RISING UP is at the New Orleans Museum of Art.
The New Orleans Museum of Art is open Tuesdays through Sundays. Wednesdays are free to Louisiana residents until 6 p.m. The museum stays open until 9 p.m. for special programming on Friday nights. On Friday, June 13, Ayo Scott will be presenting an artist’s perspective on the murals. On Friday, Sept. 5, the film “Amistad” will be shown.
Dr. Sara Hollis is a Professor in the M.A. Museum Studies Program at Southern University at New Orleans. She received her doctorate at Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta) and her dissertation is: African American Artists-A Handbook. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.