Keeping Culture Alive During Covid-19: Turner Contemporary's 'We Will Walk - Art and Resista

By Morgan Rodway-Wing

We Will Walk exhibition by Turner Contemporary

Image courtesy of Turner Contemporary

Theatres? Closed. Museums? Closed. Art Galleries? Closed. One could be forgiven for assuming that the Covid-19 pandemic has put culture on pause. However, with the help of digital resources, culture has never been as thriving as it is currently; whether it is partaking in online quizzes with friends, watching live music performances on social media or creating a plethora of arts and crafts with family. In a time as uncertain and unimaginable as now, it is somewhat refreshing that people have continued to turn to the arts as a form of stress relief and entertainment, even if digitally rather than in person.

Unfortunately, there are some aspects of culture that cannot be recreated in the home - or so I thought. Art Galleries and museums are undoubtedly impossible to recreate because looking at a photograph of a painting or an artefact is not nearly as impressive as standing in front of the real deal, right? Wrong. Turner Contemporary has proved this theory wrong in every way, shape and form with its new virtual exhibition We Will Walk - Art and Resistance in the American South. When the physical exhibition opened in February, I had the opportunity to visit before lockdown started; therefore, having seen both the physical and virtual exhibition, I can honestly say that it is educational, passionate and captivating in both forms.

Curated by Hannah Collins and Paul Goodwin, ‘We Will Walk brings together sculptures, paintings, quilts and installations by more than 20 African American artists from Alabama and the Deep South. The exhibition addresses issues of race, class and resistance through a diverse range of works developed outside of the mainstream’.

We Will Walk evokes a level of emotion that is almost impossible to suppress and demands participation from its audience. This exhibition refuses to allow people to view the history of black civil rights struggle passively and ensures that every single person who engages with the exhibition leaves with a lasting impact. The interdisciplinary nature of the exhibition combines art, history, music and even television in order to take the audience on a journey and allows them to understand that the civil rights movement was not limited to history or politics; it consumed, and continues to consume, all aspects of culture.

The physical and virtual exhibitions both evoke emotions to varying degrees and have alternative effects on the audience, yet both are as emotive as the other. The difference is very much the focal point. The physical exhibition begins with a timeline of the American Civil Rights movement and can take up to ten minutes to read, providing the audience with knowledge and an awareness before even stepping into the main exhibit. In this sense, the physical exhibition puts a primary focus on reading and intense concentration in order to evoke emotion through understanding and empathy. Also, the physical aspect of the exhibition brings a chilling sense of reality, particularly with the Gee’s Bend quilts. According to Turner Contemporary, ‘a remarkable series of quilts from the isolated hamlet of Gee's Bend in Alabama feature in the show. Many of the inhabitants of Gee's Bend are descendants of people enslaved on the Pettway plantation. These world-famous quilts have a distinctive style and are often made from recycling old clothing such as blue jeans’. By being able to walk around the exhibition, the audience becomes surrounded by the quilts that have filled up the walls of a whole room. Visually, the variety of colours and textures are astounding and immediately evoke a reaction from the audience because of their aesthetics; this is then furthered by the audience’s understanding of the context behind the Gee’s Bend quilts. By combining visual aids with vast amounts of context, Collins and Goodwin create a physical exhibition that demands participation from the audience and encourages them to seek a deeper understanding of the art of African American artists from Alabama and the Deep South.

We Will Walk exhibition by Turner Contemporary

Image courtesy of Turner Contemporary

The virtual exhibition, on the other hand, provides a more immersive experience with a focus on sound. Collins and Goodwin lead the virtual tour, with added ‘soundbites from civil rights photographer Doris Derby and writer/critic Greg Tate. When listened to through headphones, the audience becomes the centre of the exhibition, every single word encapsulating them. The inclusion of the ‘specially created soundtrack by African American musicologist Professor Calvin Forbes’ furthers the audience’s engagement because the music resonates with them as the camera pans around the room, combining music with art and history. In addition, the virtual tour excels in terms of detail; the camera often zooms into aspects of the exhibition, providing the audience with a closer look at the sculptures than the naked eye would be able to. This level of detail more than makes up for the lack of physicality in the exhibition.

It is refreshing that Turner Contemporary has used its platform to bring awareness to ‘the little-known art shaped by the American Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s’, and it is even more commendable that it has been able to adapt to the current Covid-19 situation in order to create a virtual exhibition that is every bit as educational and engaging as the physical one.

We Will Walk - Art and Resistance in the American South is available to view for free on the Turner Contemporary website.

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