Civil rights, the heart of Arkansas, and the ‘Soul of a Nation’

[BENTONVILLE] — Soul of a Nation, an exhibit bringing awareness to the reality of the Civil Rights Movement, is currently on display at Crystal Bridges in Bentonville, Ark. in its American debut.

The exhibit is a collection of formerly neglected art bringing a unique, important perspective to the Civil Rights Movement. Crystal Bridges is one of only two museums in the country scheduled to host the exhibit, according to the Soul of Nation Facebook page, and it showcases 170 works of art by 62 African-American artists, according to the Arkansas Times.

Among the collection, which features the creative voices of black men and women alike, are pieces by renowned artists Romare Bearden, Noah Purifoy, Martin Puryear, Faith Ringgold, Betye Saar, William T. Williams, Alma Thomas and Charles White, according to the Crystal Bridges website. 

The exhibit takes viewers through the Civil Rights movement from its dawn to the peak of America’s awareness of the movement in the late 1960s with captivating sculptures, murals, paintings and street photography.

Sophomore nursing major China Armstrong said, “I was really surprised when I heard about it, because it is Arkansas. Arkansas is pretty racist, so it’s important to have the exhibit to show other sides and other people’s perspectives, and it broadens people’s minds and challenges them.”

Jim Weaver, a visitor to Crystal Bridges, was challenged by the art and described the exhibit as sobering.

Weaver said, “I first felt sadness, guilt or something for knowing society as a whole was responsible for oppressing black people” during this dark time in United States’ history.

Weaver was surprised at the deathly silence he experienced while observing the exhibit. “I can’t help but think some were quiet within the confines of the exhibit because we [felt like] we had to watch everything we said and every way we said it” due to the sensitive material showcased, Weaver said.

Bob Shaw, 78-year-old member of Crystal Bridges, said, “I thought it was very powerful because—two things—number one, the exhibit itself; the colors and vibrant aspects to the artwork. Also, because it happened to be a time we lived through and remember very vividly—the black power movement and Berkley and Oakland and out in that area in California, and other aspects of discrimination that we were touched by at that time in our lives because we began to feel it among some of our friends. I had a multilevel response.”

Shaw also said, “Maybe it has a little more appeal in some respects because of it being here [in the south.] I lived through those experiences, and it had a different impression on [me.]”

Intercity teacher in Hot Springs, Arkansas, Debbie Shelman said the exhibit was helpful to her in how she will teach the students in her diverse school. “My impression of the exhibit overall was that it encompasses the work of these artists from the rich to poor, from all walks of life, male and female. Very comprehensive collection,” Shelman said. It is important to Shelman to understand and study African American art so she can help her students gain perspective and understanding.

Shelman said, “If I don’t know anything about the African American art and artists, I feel I’m not equipped to teach it to the kids who come to me expecting that I do. I don’t think it is any more important for all Americans to be exposed to African American art than any other art such as Asian or European. But I feel that people should make an effort to explore any and all art. No matter the culture, it is a language that speaks to all of humanity and an opportunity to understand people of all races and creeds.”

Junior family and human services major Jessica Jansma said she thought “the Soul of a Nation exhibit does a beautiful job of portraying the beauty and strength of the black community in a way that is often ignored…their history holds compelling and beautiful acts of courage and resilience. I believe it is important for white people to see how a black artist expresses his or her life experience through art.”

Armstrong hopes that the Soul of the Nation exhibit can “open bridges for other heritages and cultures” to receive recognition and a platform in the museum.

Crystal Bridges is, in fact, doing just that. Recently described by the Washington Post as the most “Woke museum in America,” the early American art exhibits are currently close and under renovation. When they reopen, the exhibits will include a collection of works by Native American artists along with many of the original paintings.

Northwest Arkansas continues to grow and residents continue to expand their minds and perpectives through exhibits like these.

Crystal Bridges will display The Soul of the Nation exhibit through April 23 before it moves on to its second American stop at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City.