Jeffreen M. Hayes, Ph.D., said Birmingham Museum of Art’s newest exhibition, “Etched in Collective History,” is her public thank-you to the Magic City. The former Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow in African American Art at the museum shared her thoughts during the opening lecture on Friday evening. The exhibit fills all three Jemison Galleries and features 33 artists and 56 pieces of art. The exhibit includes photography, paintings, installation, collage, paintings, prints, drawings, and sculptures.
Early in her talk, Hayes read from an essay she’d written for a local publication. In the essay Hayes writes about the pull Birmingham had on her life, one that even she was unaware of. “During my tenure, several new and old friends asked me, ‘What made you choose Birmingham?’ For a while, I could not articulate exactly why, except for the job opportunity. After spending the past year and half here, however, I can now express why I chose Birmingham…I realized that as much as I chose Birmingham, Birmingham chose me.”
Hayes relayed a childhood experience where she was picked to participate in a Black History Bowl her junior year in high school. During her preparation, Hayes checked out several books from her hometown library. One of those books was “Eyes on the Prize.” “I had never seen images like that before: black people demonstrating their dignity and working together, all for the right to be seen and respected as human beings, and withstanding the brutal force against them having what was rightfully theirs. Birmingham’s struggles were front and center – and disturbing – but stayed in my consciousness all of these years.”
Those images, and a connection to the Birmingham struggle, guided her through the exhibit’s selections. Hayes said her output was a labor of love. “I’ve poured my soul into it. It’s really hard to think about 1963 or the civil rights movement and look at the works and not connect to it personally.” Hayes said it’s her goal that the exhibit’s viewer also makes a connection.
She elaborated on a handful of pieces. Hayes considers two of those as the exhibit’s anchors. One, “There were Saturday afternoons,” is an installation by Shinique Smith that was just completed this week. The work features four doll houses that represent each girl who died in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Smith weaved in locally donated toys, books, shoes and clothes, all things the girls would have continued to enjoy had they lived. The other anchor is an installation by Atlanta-based artist Radcliffe Bailey. The piece “takes you to church” with Bailey’s interpretation of 16th Street Baptist Church’s sanctuary. The work features portraits of the four girls and viewers can hear strains of John Coltrane’s “Alabama” from a vintage radio.
In addition to Smith and Bailey, the exhibit includes artwork from Zoe Charlton, Thornton Dial, Art Bacon, Chris McNair, Jefferson Pinder and others. Hayes admitted some of the pieces may be shocking to some, but that was not the goal. “The pieces are provocative to get people talking. I want us to have that [hard] conversation about diversity, about race.”
Hayes, whose fellowship recently ended, has to Chicago to work with artist Theaster Gates. “Etched in Collective History” opens Sunday at noon at the Birmingham Museum of Art, 2000 Rev. Abraham Woods Jr. Blvd. It closes November 17. Admission is free.