New York University is showcasing the work of a little-known African-American painter whose dramatic murals depict some of the most powerful moments in American history -- the Amistad slave rebellion and trial. NY1's Cheryl Wills filed the following report.
Steven Spielberg's 1997 film "Amistad" vividly captures the 1839 revolt by 53 Mende captives who took control of a slave ship and later won a landmark case
against the United States which restored their freedom.
The late artist Hale Woodruff told the same story in classic paintings that are almost as dramatic, capturing the emotions of the West African people who were on trial in living color. New York University is currently displaying Woodruff's murals in the NYU 80WSE Gallery in Greenwich Village, in the exhibit "Rising Up: Hale Woodruff's Murals At Talladega College."
"He actually did intensive research when he was preparing to do these murals. It took him three months to do the research because there was so much attention given to the Amistad trial," says Debra Spencer, an NYU art consultant.
The murals were fading away in a library at Talladega College in Alabama until they were restored a few years ago, and now they are on a national tour. Woodruff, who was also a professor at NYU for some 20 years, used his art as a form of social activism.
"He was really fascinated by the murals, by the history and how do you depict and tell the story so that it comes alive for people? And he spent a year on this murals," says Michael Dinwiddie, an NYU cultural historian and playwright.
Woodruff painted the three panel murals in 1938 and went on to create vivid portraits of African-American life during the Depression, as well as abstract art.
"He was phenomenal and incredible. He made sure that the clothing, materials and look of it really reflected that period of that time," Dinwiddie says.
Woodruff also displayed a lightness about his art, inserting his own image in the mural.
While Woodruff died in 1980 at the age of 80, his legacy and his work continues to inspire a new generation of artists. The exhibit opens on July 20 and runs until October 13.
To learn more about the exhibit, visit steinhardt.nyu.edu.