Yesterday I attended docent training for the Jewish Museum of Maryland’s Spring exhibition titled Loring Cornish: In Each Other’s Shoes. This exhibition explores the shared experiences of African Americans and American Jews which include: violent persecution, discrimination, poverty, transcendence, hope and prosperity through the prism of the 1950s and 1960s Civil Rights Movement in the United States. The creator of the exhibition, Loring Cornish, is a Visionary Artist who utilizes found objects as the medium for his three dimensional vividly colored mosaics. Mr. Cornish explained to us at the docent training session that he felt deeply inspired to create an exhibition that has a social action theme.
As I entered the exhibition, I felt as though I was embarking upon a journey back in time to the Civil Rights era southern United States. The large brilliantly colored pieces of art which filled the gallery were replete with Civil Rights era iconography, which included images of a large gold painted peace symbol and Civil Rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., President John F. Kennedy and U.S. Senator Robert Kennedy. The first piece that I viewed was titled Target Shalom (peace), which featured the aforementioned Civil Rights leaders with drops of blood on one side of the piece and a large gold colored peace symbol on the other side. I was immediately struck by the juxtaposition of the black colored background with the contrast of the bright gold colored peace symbol. This juxtaposition of light and dark colors is a recurrent theme throughout the exhibition. This use of color opposition reminded me of the contrast between the feelings of fear and despair, and the feelings of idealism and hope, which were all recurrent themes that existed as a constituent part of the collective consciousness of the Civil Rights Movement.
The second piece that I viewed was titled March on Washington. This piece was filled on one side by square shaped white colored glass pieces which were joined together to create the soles of human feet, which were set against a black background. The instant that I saw this piece, it evoked images in my mind of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington DC.
The third piece that I encountered was titled Montgomery Bus Boycott. This piece was composed of pieces from a variety of brand name tennis shoes such as Nike and Reebok. The pieces of white and camel colored shoes together formed the words Montgomery Bus Boycott. As I gazed at this piece, I reflected upon the juxtapositions of the lack of civil liberties and of the poverty that many African Americans and American Jews faced in the past in contrast with the civil liberties and the economic prosperity that many from both communities enjoy today, due in large part to the Civil Rights Movement.
The fourth piece that I explored, titled Souls Awaiting Justice, was for me the most powerful piece in the exhibition. The front side of the piece was covered in brightly colored glass stones, which Mr. Cornish explained symbolized the hope, the prosperity and the achievement of African Americans and Jews; while the opposite side of the piece featured leather, which was meticulously sculpted into a representation of dead bodies. The base which was created by Rashaud Williams in collaboration with Mr. Cornish featured a six candle menorah meant to represent the six million Jews who were murdered in the Shoah (Holocaust) and chains which symbolized the enslavement of African Americans. I was moved by the sense of hope that was offered by the one side of the piece and I felt a deep sense of loss when I viewed the opposite side of the piece. I imagined both the graphic sight and smell of dead charred human flesh that is found in mass graves.
My journey through this powerful and evocative exhibition culminated with the vividly colored piece titled Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Going. This piece dramatically depicted the transformative sojourn of the African American and the American Jewish communities and the optimism that such a sojourn engenders. This one of a kind exhibition has made the Civil Rights Movement, which was created and experienced by African Americans and American Jews real for me in a personal way that can not be replicated by a two dimensional documentary, lecture or history text book.
*photographs by Jennifer Vess