The whole world was watching

One of the good things about Houston – probably the best thing, in fact – is the amount of oil money that has been spent on its art galleries. The Museum of Fine Arts has not only a wonderful collection of paintings, especially Impressionist and post-Impressionist ones, but they’ve also clearly also bought great curators along with the paintings. The exhibitions are perfectly hung, and supported by excellent commentaries.

Good salads in the café, too. And let me tell you, when you’re in Texas, a good salad ain’t nothin’.

But there’s more, and the more is the best bit: the Menil Collection, a modernist collection that includes a substantial holding of ancient and indigenous art. The main collection is housed in a beautiful wooden building; and there’s the astonishing Rothko Chapel and several other galleries as well. All free, too, thanks to the vision and generosity of the Menil family.

The Rothko paintings are breathtaking, and worth the journey to Houston all by themselves. But the most moving and memorable part for me was an exhibition of Civil Rights era photographs, called “The whole world was watching”. As anyone who grew up in the late 1960s will remember, the phrase ‘the whole world is watching’ was the catchphrase of demonstrators and activists of the times.

The exhibition’s curator, Michelle White, says, “Photography at this moment in history was, in many ways, for the first time being vastly distributed. Activists, from the Vietnam War activists to the civil rights activists, were really harnessing the media for the first time.”

I was still in New Zealand then, at Auckland University, and I remember the effect of images and reports of the Civil Rights struggle in the USA: it created an indelible set of memories, as well as nurturing a passion for justice and change.

The powerful and striking images in the exhibition include marchers on the road from Selma to Montgomery, Dr. Martin Luther King in protest, cotton workers in the Mississippi Delta, prison labor camps in Texas, and the Ku Klux Klan. It’s a compelling and deeply moving collection and I salute the Menil organisers, as well as my own good fortune in being in the right place at the right time to see this.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.