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Updated 10:00 AM February 5, 2007




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UMMA exhibit explores heritage of country's
first incorporated Black town

Not far from Disney World in Orlando, Fla, is the small town of Eatonville, incorporated by African Americans in 1887 during Reconstruction. The contrast is stark and revealing: the virtual world of high-tech animation that attracts millions of tourists is merely a short drive from a town of approximately 2,500 residents whose culture is rooted in centuries-old folklore and social struggles.
Carrie at Euro Designs with Helen McLaughlin, 2003, by Deborah Willis, and Jason-Ramone Filmore, by Dawoud Behoove, and are among photo subjects depicted in the UMMA Off/Site exhibit "Embracing Eatonville," on display through March 18. Eatonville is the oldest black incorporated town in the U.S. and home to Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston. The exhibit celebrates the spirit and character of Eatonville through the work of contemporary photographers, each of whom has created a new body of work for this exhibition. The photos explore the importance of place to individual and collective identity. Guided tours of the exhibit are scheduled for 7 p.m. Feb. 15, 2 p.m. Feb. 18 and 5:30-7 p.m. Feb. 21. The exhibit is made possible by the Ford Motor Co. Fund, as part of its support of UMMA's 2006-07 season. (Photo by Deborah Willis)

The story of the town comes alive through the compelling photography of Dawoud Bey, Lonnie Graham, Carrie Mae Weems and Deborah Willis, now on display in the U-M Museum of Art. In Embracing Eatonville, viewers will find a dramatic perspective of present-day Eatonville and the place captured in literature by its most famous resident, writer Zora Neale Hurston.

The story of Eatonville is a layered exploration of race, identity, and culture—especially timely during Black History Month. Eatonville was one of the first African American communities formed after the Emancipation Proclamation, and the oldest Black incorporated town in the U.S.

The exhibition runs through March 18 at the UMMA temporary exhibition space UMMA Off/Site. It offers a lesson in American history and insight into contemporary African American communities, where the role of women has grown in power and influence. The museum asked women's studies professors Naomi André and Maria Cotera to offer their interpretations of the appeal and value of the exhibition.

The photographs document the transformation of "important social spaces," from the storefront porch, a site of male power, to the "beauty parlor, a place where women undoubtedly exchange stories, gossip, and tell a lie or two," Cotera says.

"These pictures are about what Eatonville is, has been, and looks forward to," André says. "The reenactment of Hurston writing her field notes, walking through the landscape, resting by the water is marvelously present in Carrie Mae Weem's stunningly textured black-and-white photographs."

In her many literary works, Hurston drew inspiration from Eatonville, where her father served as mayor. In her writing during the Harlem Renaissance, she combined her skills as an anthropologist, folklorist and storyteller. Hurston offered Eatonville as a utopian example of what Black Americans could attain—a place separate from the discrimination and bigotry of the larger white-dominated society.

Every January, Eatonville/Orange County, Fla, celebrates the life and work of its famous daughter with the Zora Neal Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities (ZORA! Festival). The 18th annual event concluded Jan. 28.

Embracing Eatonville is a collaboration among Light Work, a non-profit gallery supporting the work of artists in photography and digital media; A Social Studies Project (ASSP), an artists' collective; and the Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts in Eatonville.

Embracing Eatonville is sponsored by the Ford Motor Company Fund, as part of its support of the UMMA 2006-07 season.

Additional support has been provided by the Office of the President, Office of the Provost, the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, Pfizer Inc., the Friends of the Museum of Art, the Katherine Tuck Enrichment Fund, and the Monroe-Brown Foundation.

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