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Review: Rising Up

D. Eric Bookhardt on Hale Woodruff’s murals, on view at the New Orleans Museum of Art



The 1930s was a banner decade for mural painting in America. The hardships of the Great Depression increased popular interest in the kinds of heroic struggles that murals typically depict. In 1938, Alabama's Talladega College commissioned Hale Woodruff to paint a series illustrating decisive moments in the fight against racial oppression. The six murals on view at New Orleans Museum of Art are among his most iconic, but it helps to see them in person. His Mutiny on the Amistad (pictured), portraying an 1839 uprising on a ship carrying slaves to a Cuban sugar plantation, is strikingly more powerful than a reproduction can convey. Other scenes show the mutineers on trial after their escape to New York, as well as their eventual repatriation to Africa after the U. S. Supreme Court ruled in their favor. Painted in a romantic realist style, Woodruff's work endures because it eloquently reflects the timeless longing for freedom, justice and dignity that all people share.

  Woodruff died in 1980, so we can only wonder what he might have thought about the latest American art trends. He might have liked Antenna's recent multicultural Mixed Messages IV show, in which hooded Ku Klux Klansmen are depicted fleeing from an angry Godzilla, but, like many civil rights veterans, he might have been taken aback by Kara Walker's imagery in the Contemporary Arts Center's 30 Americans show, where her relentlessly anti-heroic depictions of plantation slavery (think Uncle Tom's Cabin perversely illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley) suggest a kinky kind of psychodrama where depravity is everywhere and human dignity is nonexistent. An artist of immense talent whose quiet charisma almost masks her visceral instinct for publicity, Walker courts controversy with titillating spectacles — most recently her three-story-tall, anatomically explicit, black-mammy-as-Sphinx sculpture rendered in sugar at a defunct Domino refinery in Brooklyn, New York. Her approach raises no end of questions. Author Peter Beagle once described Hieronymus Bosch's imagery as an "erotic derangement that turns us all into voyeurs." Many of her critics feel the same might be said of Walker.

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