“When we first put the photos out in the street, in urban communities, by the Greyhound bus station, these homeless guys went, ‘What are y’all doing? Who are those older people?,’” says Atlanta artist Sheila Pree Bright. “So I say that these are the unknown people from the Civil Rights Movement. This is Charles Person, the Freedom Rider.” As Bright went on to explain who they are and what they’ve done, the homeless men responded with astonishment, wondering why they had never been taught about them in school.
Taking a ride on Downtown’s Trinity Avenue for many Atlantans can be a bit of culture shock. Between the state capitol building and the popular neighborhood Castleberry Hill, there are a few blocks of destitution, where homeless men and women hang around abandoned buildings (though the recent opening of Eyedrum on Forsyth Street is a harbinger of change). Precisely because of this sense of hopelessness, Bright chose this area to wheat-paste large-scale black-and-white portraits of Freedom Riders from the Atlanta Student Movement onto abandoned buildings. The photographs are a part of Project 1960 and will be on display until the weather or real estate developers do them in.
Bright paraphrases a popular quote by Nina Simone to explain why she focuses on human and civil rights, “It’s an artist’s duty to talk about the culture of the times,” she says. “There are a lot of artists in these movements.” She is referring to the national movements against police brutality and marches for human rights. It just so happened that she was in Washington D.C. for a symposium at the National Museum of African American History and Culture when organizers began to demonstrate in nearby Baltimore over the killing of Freddie Gray. With her camera in tow, Bright captured the peaceful demonstration that would later turn into the infamous uprising.
“I tell everybody. If you really want to know, go down there and see for yourself what’s going on instead of making judgments about it.” By her quiet nature, you wouldn’t think that Bright would be the kind of person to shout out in protest Black Panther Assata Shakur’s quote, “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. / It is our duty to win. / We must love each other and support each other. / We have nothing to lose but our chains.” But she relishes the opportunity to tell the story about the protestors who chant these words as they demonstrate.
Bright describes herself as a shy introvert. She found that the camera spoke for her when she enrolled in a photography class during her senior year at the University of Missouri. She went on to make her mark in commercial photography. But it was her photographs of gangster rappers that made the art world take note. Although she was naive about the gangster lifestyle, they let her get close enough to capture some really heavy stuff. When a friend saw her work, he told her that she had to do an art show. She indeed ended up in a gallery show with three other women, all of whom had MFAs. Although she didn’t want to attend the show’s opening, her friend persuaded her that she had to be there. When she arrived, visitors peppered her with questions, such as whether the guns had bullets in them. This was Bright’s entrée into the art world.
Her father encouraged her to go back to school, so she attended Georgia State University and received her MFA in 2003. It opened her eyes. “It helped me understand about imagery. For me to put out imagery of rap artists back then, I just really didn’t understand about the projected stereotype,” she says. “When I got to school I was like, wow… I realized that I was reinforcing the stereotype.” Bright has gone on to dispel myths instead, whether they are myths about beauty with her Plastic Bodies series or about the black middle class with Suburbia. In her most recent work, Project 1960, she’s demystifying the people who are the forces behind civil and human rights movements. Bright’s camera speaks from an informed angle. She recognizes that Project 1960, which began in 2013 with 1960 Who? for Elevate Atlanta, is now bigger than her.
Over time, Bright has garnered the title cultural anthropologist. “They kind of tag me with cultural anthropology because I do look at different cultures. I observe. I want to always answer the question, why.” Project 1960 is evidence of this particular eye that provides us answers to our questions about how change occurs by capturing the people in the act of making change happen. The homepage image, of a demonstration, for Project 1960 hints at what’s to come in this evolving project. The photograph, shot from below, is of a man with a bullhorn leading a crowd of protestors in peaceful demonstration, their arms raised in solidarity for Freddie Gray. A little boy stands just off center in the midst of the demonstration. This photograph epitomizes what Bright is getting at. Her reverence for the elders and admiration for the youth in the movement is captured in Project 1960.
Bright spent some time in Ferguson after the protests and was in Baltimore prior to the uprising. “I try to catch moments of solitude with the protestors. Not all that rage. I guess that’s part of my nature.” Bright showed me some of the photos that will be included in her solo show, which will open on September 26 at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia, as part of her Working Artist Project Award. The images are powerful. They depict not only the power of such movements, they convey the power of peace.