On Saturday, June 13, the Birmingham Museum of Art will welcome Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College. Organized by the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, the exhibition has traveled across the country and has received much acclaim, even from The New York Times.
As Chief Curator and Curator of American Art, I’m very excited to welcome this stunning exhibition. Here are a few reasons why you’ll love Hale Woodruff’s murals, too:
1. The Story: The story of the Amistad captives’ mutiny, the trial resulting in their freedom, and ultimate return to Africa is one of the most riveting episodes in American history. Hale Woodruff, a master of narrative painting, brings the past to life in six monumental canvases which not only tell the story of the Amistad captives, but also depict the Underground Railroad. The murals also tell the history of Talladega College, one of the country’s oldest historically black colleges, which was founded in 1867 by former slaves, who proclaimed, “We regard the education of our children and youth as vital to the preservation of our liberties…”
2. The View: While the Talladega College murals permanently reside in the school’s Savery Library, only an hour’s drive away from Birmingham, the exhibition provides an unprecedented opportunity to see these extraordinary masterworks up close. In Savery Library, the murals hang at a considerable height along the top of the walls. Here at the BMA, visitors will be afforded a rare chance to come face-to-face with them, and appreciate Woodruff’s skill as an artist in a way not possible in their original setting.
3. The Color: Woodruff has a well-deserved reputation as one of boldest colorists in American art. The varied and vibrant hues of his Talladega murals arrest and dazzle the eye, ironically bringing aesthetic beauty to some of the most difficult chapters in our history. It is not surprising that renowned sociologist Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963) wrote that Woodruff “packed the rainbow in his knapsack” when he came to Alabama and “dreamed upon the walls of Savery Library, the thing of color and beauty…”
4. The Context: The exhibition does a masterful job of showing how Woodruff developed as an artist, working in a various styles – including Post-Impressionism, Cubism, and Surrealism – before settling into his own distinct brand of narrative realism. By including works that show his versatility and deft mastery of these styles, the exhibition shows both Woodruff’s tremendous skill as an artist and the diverse influences that contributed to the Talladega murals.
5. A Hidden Treasure: In The Trial of the Amistad Captives mural, Woodruff has included a small likeness of himself, looking on intently as the drama of the trial unfolds, as if a witness to history. I challenge you to find Woodruff’s self-portrait!
Birmingham is the penultimate stop for this beautiful exhibition, and we are proud to welcome the murals back to Alabama. The exhibition will open to the public June 13-September 6, with free admission.