Friday, December 18, 2015
Mutiny on the Amistad
A mural by Hale Woodruff depicting the slave revolt aboard the Amistad is on display at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City. Woodruff’s murals depict key points in black history.
The “Mutiny on the Amistad” is the first painting in a series of giant murals in an exhibition at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, running until Jan. 10. Hale Woodruff (1900-1980) at Talladega College in Alabama painted it in 1939, the first depiction in the 20th century of the Amistad saga.
The event became much more famous in 1997 when Steven Spielberg made the film “Amistad,” emphasizing the trial with Anthony Hopkins as ex-President John Adams, the defense attorney for the illegally captured African blacks.
In 1839, the Amistad, a Spanish ship, was carrying blacks from Cuba to be sold as slaves in the United States. The blacks previously had been brought from Africa aboard a ship built for carrying slaves, but the Amistad had not been built for carrying slaves, and a number of blacks had been allowed to stay above deck. Off the coast of Cuba, led by Cinque, the Africans staged a revolt and captured the ship. They wanted to return to Africa, but were misdirected by the two surviving Spaniards and were captured off the coast of Long Island.
Thus the blacks began a two-year battle to regain their freedom, with the help of Adams and some abolitionists. The decision by the U.S. Supreme Court was that the blacks had been born free and were illegally captured so they could return to Africa. The abolitionists made the arrangements for their return.
Woodruff’s artistic style was influenced by Thomas Hart Benton, whose exhibition at the Nelson-Atkins Museum we discussed last Sunday. In Woodruff’s first mural, Cinque, whose likeness is based on a portrait made during the trial, leads his men armed with sugarcane knives in a battle with the ship’s crew, who are equipped with guns.
Woodruff used courtroom sketches to make historically accurate his second and largest mural — 72x240 inches. The third mural shows the blacks’ return to Africa with the help of the abolitionists and the American Missionary Association.
Three additional murals by Woodruff are intended to honor the progress from slavery to liberty. The first of these captures the complicated nature of the Underground Railroad that helped many slaves escape to Canada.
The second is of the opening day of Talladega College in 1867. The college was founded with the help of American Missionary Association, and was the first in Alabama to accept students of all races.
Part of the painting shows students bringing animals and vegetables to help pay for their tuition. In the final mural in the series, which concerns the building in 1939 of the Savery Library, Woodruff stresses the cooperation between whites and blacks in accomplishing the task.
While intended to be kept at Talladega College, the murals have become a symbol of hope for racial equality, and with the help of The High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Ga., are on tour to a national audience.
The Woodruff exhibition is next to the African art gallery that includes masks, plaques and a movie showing masked African dancers performing. A family gallery guide is available that asks questions and gives information that will make the visit more entertaining for children.
The Trial of the Amistad Captives
Amistad captives return to Africa as free men