Reckoning

Protest. Defiance. Resilience.

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Reckoning: Protest. Defiance. Resilience. looks at the ways in which visual art has long provided its own protest, commentary, escape and perspective for African Americans.

Black Love Matters: Untitled

Black Love Matters: Untitled
Leading a march during Ferguson October in 2014, Lezley McSpadden, Michael Brown’s mother, is in the center holding hands with her husband, Louis Head.

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Zun Lee, © Zun Lee

About the Exhibition

Visual Arts Gallery, interior
01/04

The Black painters, sculptors, photographers and textile artists featured here exemplify the tradition of exhibiting resilience in times of conflict, as well as the ritual of creation, and often, the defiant pleasure of healing.
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Visual Arts Gallery, interior
02/04

This show arises out of the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism, both of which impacted daily life for all Americans in 2020.
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Portrait of Breonna Taylor, by Amy Sherald, on view in the Visual Arts Gallery
03/04

This time has been called one of reckoning, as the world witnessed the killing of George Floyd and other African Americans at the hands of police, leading to some of the largest protests in U.S. history.
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Visual Arts Gallery, interior, with view of Mothership (Capsule) created by Jeffers
04/04

Central to this exhibition taken from the museum’s permanent collection are new acquisitions, including Bisa Butler’s quilted and appliquéd textile portrait of Harriet Tubman, David Hammons’s homage to Michael Stewart and Amy Sherald’s posthumous portrait of Breonna Taylor, who has become a symbol of ongoing injustice and female power.
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Hi Experience

Smithsonian Hi is a digital museum guide experience that allows visitors to engage with museum objects using their personal mobile devices. The Hi experience combines innovative image recognition software with an easy-to-use web-browser interface that requires no plugins or downloads. Visitors can use Hi to learn more about objects on view in the Museum's galleries and stories that connect them through video, audio, image and text features; including curator and artist interviews, related objects from the collection and links to online educational resources. Visitors can also use Hi to share favorite objects on social media, bringing the conversation beyond the physical museum. 

Go to hi.si.edu from your mobile device while visiting the Visual Arts Gallery to begin your experience!

Family Guide

Reckoning: Protest. Defiance. Resilience. tells stories of injustice, resistance and courage. Use this Family Guide to introduce these complex ideas and facilitate conversations in developmentally appropriate and meaningful ways for children through questions and activities connected to featured artworks.Note: To best honor children’s developmental and emotional needs, we’ve provided a preview of the sensitive and graphic imagery and audio in the exhibit

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Exhibition Storylines

Reckoning is a testament to how artists and photographers have used their voice to pay tribute to those we have lost, lifting up names such as Eric Garner, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at demonstrations and in communities online. The show journeys from defiance to resilience to grief and mourning, hope and change.

The exhibition seeks to forge connections between the Black Lives Matter protests, racial violence, grief and mourning, hope and change.

Tuliza Fleming NMAAHC’s interim chief curator of visual arts.

African Americans have faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles in their pursuit of political and social equity and equality.  Despite the difficulties, they have never given up in their quest for a fair and just world. The works of these artists not only speak to a particular event, a movement, or a theme, they also speak to us—the viewer—as a call to action and a catalyst for change.

"Say Her Name" protest, artist Janelle Monae and Wondaland Records members perform "Hell YouTalmbout" protest song, Atlanta, GA 2016

"Say Her Name" protest, artist Janelle Monae and Wondaland Records members perform "Hell YouTalmbout" protest song, Atlanta, GA 2016

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Sheila Pree Bright, © Sheila Pree Bright

From the bravery of Harriet Tubman, who guided numerous enslaved men, women and children to freedom in the North, to Breonna Taylor, whose tragic death inspired thousands to stand up for justice deferred, Black women have fought to be heard and recognized. As rendered by African American artists, the women in this gallery represent well-known activists, in addition to representations of those who quietly pushed for equity in our complex world across the centuries-long freedom struggle.

I Go to Prepare a Place for You, 2021, Bisa Butler

I Go to Prepare a Place for You, 2021

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, purchased through the American Women's History Initiative Acquisitions Pool, administered by the Smithsonian American Women's History Initiative, © Bisa Butler

The history of racial violence in our nation is one of tragedy and resilience. Not just witnesses to such violence, African American artists have created artworks that give voice to the voiceless and reveal the ever-present threats to Black life. The works in this gallery document decades of injustice, from Rodney King, whose beating (captured on video) began to change the world’s perception of police brutality, to Eric Garner whose last words prior to his death were, “I can’t breathe.”

The Man Nobody Killed, 1986, © David Hammons

The Man Nobody Killed, 1986

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, © David Hammons

Amy Sherald is best known for her portraits of African Americans, notable for her use of grayscale to paint skin tones as a way of challenging the concept of color as race, including in her noted portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama.

In 2020, after police shot and killed Breonna Taylor in a botched raid, Vanity Fair magazine commissioned Sherald to paint a portrait of Taylor for the September issue, guest-edited by author Ta-Nehisi Coates. Before what would become her first posthumous portrait, Sherald spent time speaking with Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer, and learned of Taylor’s interest in fashion. As a result, Sherald commissioned a Black female designer to create the dress for the portrait. Sherald also placed an engagement ring on Taylor’s finger to represent the love between Taylor and her partner, Kenneth Walker, who was with her at the time of her killing. Although Taylor’s untimely death prevented Walker from proposing, Sherald incorporated the ring to give him solace and to suggest a brighter future that art could invoke.

Sherald wanted the portrait to remain in the public sphere, saying, “I felt like it should live out in the world.” It is now co-owned by the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Speed Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, Taylor’s hometown.

Breonna Taylor, 2020,  © Amy Sherald

Breonna Taylor, 2020

On loan from Amy Sherald, © Amy Sherald

I don’t think I thought about the viewer so much as I thought about her family when I was making this portrait . . . but when you’re speaking about violence against women and police brutality, she’s become a face for that movement.

Amy Sherald

A Closer Look

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Megan Thee Stallion - Savage Remix [SNL Live Performance]

In October 2020, when Megan Thee Stallion performed her “Savage Remix” on Saturday Night Live, she interspersed her performance with excerpts for Malcolm X’s speech and had the words “Protect Black Women” as her stage backdrop. Her decision to include this content was partially motivated by the events of days prior when Kentucky’s attorney general announced that the use deadly force by the officers who entered Breonna Taylor’s apartment was “justified to protect themselves.”
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Move On Up A Little Higher, Pts. 1 & 2 Mahalia Jackson 1947

Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson reached national fame with the 1947 release of “of "Move On Up a Little Higher.” The composer of the song, Rev. William Herbert Brewster, was deeply inspired by the push for black upward mobility in American society and civil rights.
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Bisa Butler Signature style video

A look at the unique practice of artist Bisa Butler as she creates her portrait quilts. Her process draws upon her background as an African American of Ghanaian descent, evident in her choice of motifs, embellishments and patterning in the African textiles she employs. The works transform family memories and forgotten figures in African American history into narrative social statements.

Related Exhibitions

Reckoning draws from a number of existing exhibitions already on display at the National Museum of Afrcian American History & Culture.

View of the Cultural Expressions exhibition with a large 360 degree video screen around the center of the room.
01/04

Cultural Expressions

Culture shapes lives. It’s in the food people eat, the languages they speak, the art they create, and many other ways they express themselves. These traditions reflect the history and creative spirit of African American and other cultures of the African diaspora.
Read Story
The entrance to the Making a Way exhibition.
02/04

Making a Way Out of No Way

Through education, religious institutions, businesses, the press, and voluntary associations, African Americans created ways to serve and strengthen their communities. They also developed a tradition of activism that paved the way for broader social change.
Read Story
The entrance to the A Changing America exhibition featuring
03/04

A Changing America

While the modern Civil Rights Movement achieved many victories, it did not end the struggle for freedom. As African Americans have continued to pursue goals of equity and justice, the definition of African American identity has also continued to evolve.
Read Story
The entrance to the Sports exhibition featuring statues of John Carlos and Tommie Smith with their fists raised at the 1968 Olympics.
04/04

Sports

Sports matter far beyond the playing fields. Though historically denied opportunities to compete at the highest levels, African American athletes have recorded impressive achievements and also utilized sports to fight for greater rights and freedoms.
Read Story

Equality is all about understanding our rights, understanding what we stand for and how powerful we are as men, as women, black or white, or Hispanic.

LeBron James
"Equality" basketball shoes game-worn by LeBron James, 2017

"Equality" basketball shoes game-worn by LeBron James, 2017

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of LeBron James

Exhibition Objects

Euretta F. Adair, 2018, © Lava Thomas

Euretta F. Adair, 2018

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Cheryl and Charles Ward, © Lava Thomas
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Walking, 1958, © Charles Alston Estate

Walking, 1958

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Sydney Smith Gordon, © Charles Alston Estate
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Wives of Sango, 1971, © Jeff Donaldson

Wives of Sango, 1971

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Courtesy of Jameela K. Donaldson, © Jeff Donaldson
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Euretta F. Adair, 2018, © Lava Thomas
Walking, 1958, © Charles Alston Estate
Wives of Sango, 1971, © Jeff Donaldson