robert flora - malcolm x

FIFTY YEARS AGO TODAY, Malcolm X was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. To pay tribute to her father, Ilyasah Shabazz wrote an essay published in the New York Times titled “What Would Malcolm X Think?” In the article, she recounts the outspoken leaders’s strategies for gaining civil rights for Black Americans and suggests how he would respond to today’s injustices and racial tensions.

“I think about him every day, but even more in the last year, with the renewed spirit of civil rights activism after the tragic events in Ferguson, Mo., on Staten Island and in countless other parts of the country. What would he have to say about it?,” Shabazz writes.

She says Malcolm X would be “heartened by the youth-led movement,” but would caution them against relying on empty slogans and rhetoric and “bemoan the lack of sustained, targeted activism.”

“My father was never one to criticize without also offering a solution. First, he would challenge today’s young protesters to draw upon the nation’s rich history of activism and to appreciate better the contributions of those who have gone before them. What worked in Selma, in Chicago, in Watts — and what didn’t?” his daughter writes.

“[Malcolm X] would challenge today’s young protesters to draw upon the nation’s rich history of activism and to appreciate better the contributions of those who have gone before them.” — Ilyasah Shabazz

“He would also recognize that while some things have not changed in 50 years — like police brutality — many have. Minorities have greater access to the system. We have the ability to become law officers and judges, and the ability to register and vote. He would encourage activists to take advantage of this access, to take power inside the system as well as outside it.”

Shabazz concludes: “If my father were alive today, he would be humbled as a new generation emerges, yet again inspired, in part, by his life and words. He would advocate alongside them. But he would encourage them to follow his lead and never take the path of least resistance.”

 

gordon parks - malcolm x
GORDON PARKS, “Malcolm X Addressing Black Muslim Rally in Chicago,” 1963 (gelatin silver print), was on view at Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York in the fall 2012 exhibition “Centennial,” a Parks retrospective featuring images from significant projects.

 

IN THE DECADES SINCE HIS DEATH on Feb. 21, 1965, Malcolm X’s image has resonated as much as the masterful public speaker’s words.

Writing on the Times Lens blog in 2012, Maurice Berger discusses a photograph by Robert Flora (top of page). Berger describes Malcolm X as a “visual strategist” and “one of the most media-savvy black leaders of the period,” as well as “the most photographed.”

A selection of photographers gained special access to the Muslim leader at the height of his popularity and influence. Most prominent among them, Gordon Parks, documenting Malcolm X’s life and political activities for Life magazine, became friends with the charismatic figure and godfather to his daughter Quibilah. The Gordon Parks Foundation website features a collection of 1963 images he took of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam. (Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam in 1964.)

Bob Gomel, another Life photographer, captured Malcolm X photographing Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) across the counter of a Miami diner, after the 1964 fight that crowned Clay heavyweight champion of the world. Earlier this week, Gomel told the Houston Chronicle that the memorable image is his most lucrative print, fetching $3,000.

 

Samuel Fasso - Malcolm X
SAMUEL FASSO, “Self Portrait” From the 2008 series African Spirits, was on view at the Walther Collection in New York earlier this year.

 

MALCOLM X’S POWERFUL PERSONA, pivotal civil rights leadership and legendary role in American history have also inspired artists around the world. A few days ago, Dred Scott wrote I Am Not an American and Got Sense Enough to Know It for Creative Time Reports. In the essay, the interdisciplinary artist fondly recalls Malcolm X’s sharp critiques of America, its racism and hypocrisy, and connects them to the culture of the current political and criminal justice systems that have fostered police misconduct.

In a series of black history self-portraits, Cameroon-born photographer Samuel Fasso recreated a famous profile image of Malcolm X. His “African Spirits” series, which also includes images of Martin Luther King Jr., Angela Davis and Ethiopian Emperor Hailé Sélassie, among others, pays homage to major figures throughout the African diaspora whose principles, perspectives and actions shaped post-colonial thought.

Fasso’s photographs were on view at the Walther Collection in New York earlier this year. The collection described the images thus: “In these striking, often elaborately staged self-portraits, the studio becomes a proscenium for a personal and political practice of chameleonic self-representation and interpretation that remains ‘as much a work of vanity as it is a taxonomy of masculine desire.'”

During summer 2000, Glenn Ligon conducted a workshop with school children at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. The artist asked them to color in 1970s era coloring books that featured letters of the alphabet, images of children playing and famous figures such as Isaac Hayes and Malcolm X.

Ligon’s work considers the meaning and symbolism of words and images. The coloring book project inspired his Coloring series, in which he used the student’s drawings as the basis for a several paintings. “Coloring: New Work by Glenn Ligon” was on view at the Walker in the fall 2000.

 

glenn ligon - malcolm x
GLENN LIGON, “Malcolm X (Version 1) #1,” 2000 (vinyl-based paint, silkscreen ink, and gesso on canvas). | via Whitney Museum of Art

 

More than a decade later, he discussed the project and the significance of the resulting images for his “Glenn Ligon: America” retrospective at the Whitney Museum of Art:

“I decided to make a body of work using these images because they had such a specific political agenda behind them. They were kid’s coloring books, but they were meant to normalize images of Black americans to make them part of history. But for a three year old none of that matters,” says Ligon. “What was interesting about making the work was the irreverence with which the kids approached these images. A little kid can take an image of Malcolm X and put lipstick, blush and eyeshadow on him. For an adult this is a transgression. For a kid it’s just normal.”

“What was interesting about making the work was the irreverence with which the kids approached these images. A little kid can take an image of Malcolm X and put lipstick, blush and eyeshadow on him. For an adult this is a transgression. For a kid it’s just normal.” — Glenn Ligon


Glenn Ligon America: Audio Guide Stop for Glenn Ligon, Malcolm (Version) #1, 2000 | Whitney Museum of Art

 

In the Whitney audio, Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum and Ligon’s friend, provides further context and analysis of the images:

“What one gets are these images that now have huge historic import, but are treated in a way that seems to bely that importance. What’s at heart here was Glenn’s idea of trying, as he does in all of his work, to make sense of images and their meanings. So these works remain complicated, interesting, engaging and perhaps to some enraging.” CT

 

TOP IMAGE: Robert Flora/Corbis

 

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