The Figge Art Museum’s newest exhibit is “Art and Activism at Tougaloo College,” a traveling exhibition co-organized by the American Federation of Arts (AFA) and Tougaloo College opening Saturday, Oct. 7.

The exhibit traces the birth and development of a significant and distinctive collection that has shaped the Mississippi college’s efforts to advance the cause for civil rights for the past 60 years, according to a museum release.

Alma Thomas (American, 1891–1978) “Red Atmosphere,” 1973 Acrylic on canvas 35 × 52 in. Purchased by Tougaloo College with major support from the National Endowment for the Arts, 1973.072. Courtesy American Federation of Arts.

On view at the Figge (225 W. 2nd St., Davenport) will be 33 artworks from the collection in a range of media by both European and African-American artists such as David Driskell, Francis Picabia, Elizabeth Catlett, Alma Thomas, Pablo Picasso, Richard Mayhew, Charles White and Hale Woodruff.

In the spring of 1963, the New York Art Committee for Tougaloo College established Mississippi’s first collection of modern art at Tougaloo, a small liberal arts college located north of Jackson. The committee, led by art historian Dore Ashton and made up of New York-based artists, was formed to provide access to the fine arts for Tougaloo students and the surrounding area.

The intention was to create “an interracial oasis in which the fine arts are the focus and magnet,” which made the college a unique hub of European and New York School modernism in the region. That same year, Tougaloo College received national attention when an integrated group of Tougaloo students and faculty participated in the lunch counter sit-in at Woolworth’s in downtown Jackson.

Charles White (American, 1918-1979) “Chain Gang,” 1959 Pencil, graphite, and white chalk 18 x 24 inches Tougaloo College Art Collections Gift of Harry Belafonte, 1976.002 © 1959 Charles White Courtesy of Charles White Archive.

The event was covered by media outlets across the country, shining a spotlight on the racial tensions in the Deep South and serving as an important catalyst for the causes of civil rights. This recognition shed light on Tougaloo’s ongoing role as a center of solidarity in the fight for equality.

The exhibition explores the interconnections between the collection and the college’s significance in the civil rights movement. Works by artists such as Romare Bearden and David Driskell reflecting the Black experience are displayed alongside the works of artists such as Thomas Sills and Jeanne Reynal, who incorporated the cause for equality throughout their careers.

Together with some of the Tougaloo’s earliest acquisitions of contemporary avant-garde art, the works included in this exhibition provide a visual history of the collection’s development and its intersection with the ongoing struggle for civil rights.

David C. Driskell (American, 1931-2020) “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” 1972 Acrylic on canvas 50 x 36 inches Tougaloo College Art Collections Purchased by Tougaloo College with major support from the National Endowment for the Arts, 1973.084 © Estate of David C. Driskell Courtesy DC Moore Gallery, New York.

“After having been a supporter of the college’s art acquisitions in 1964, the American Federation of Arts is thrilled to once again collaborate with Tougaloo College to bring renewed attention to the collection’s history and its significant engagement with racial equality and civil rights,” AFA director and CEO Pauline Forlenza said in the Figge release.

“Audiences from across the country will be drawn to contemplate this complex American collection established as an ‘interracial oasis’ to foster positive change amid immense racial conflict.”

“The founding of the art collection at Tougaloo College sits at the intersection of two major American art and social movements, civil rights and the New York School,” explained curator Turry M. Flucker. “Both movements landed on the world stage with fierce intensity and chartered a new course that required self-reflection and a serious examination of a rapidly changing society. Since the Collections’ founding in 1963 and their growth after 1967, what has become increasingly clear for me is that a full understanding of the people, the history and the development of the Tougaloo College Art Collections and their connection to the 1950s and the 1960s art scene in New York City is needed now more than ever.

“Like America itself, the history of the art at Tougaloo is a fascinating yet complicated narrative that is replete with a group of diverse individuals who believed that art could be the catalyst for societal change,” Flucker said.

Exhibit curator Turry Flucker is the Vice President of Collections and Partnerships at the Terra Foundation for American Art (photo by Mark Geil).

The exhibit gives insight into a complex American collection established at the intersections of modern art and social justice.

“The Figge Art Museum is honored to have an exhibition that demonstrates the transformative power of art in service of social change and the enduring legacy of Tougaloo College in the fight for equality,” said Figge executive director Michelle Hargrave. “We invite everyone in the community to join us in exploring this remarkable chapter of history through the lens of art and activism.”

The exhibit is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue authored and edited by Turry M. Flucker, published by Hirmer. The publication features a historic overview of the college, its innovative collecting mission, and its critical role in the fight for civil rights. The exhibition will be on view through Jan. 28, 2024.

For more information on the Figge, click HERE.