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“I Dream A World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America” Is the Photo Exhibit You Need to See Now

By Sarah Buder

Feb 24, 2020

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The exhibition of late photographer Brian Lanker’s work includes a portrait of Rosa Parks in Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where the mid-1950s Montgomery Bus Boycott was organized.

Photo by Brian Lanker, I Dream A World, courtesy of Mulvane Art Museum

The exhibition of late photographer Brian Lanker’s work includes a portrait of Rosa Parks in Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where the mid-1950s Montgomery Bus Boycott was organized.

The show marks the first time in two decades that these original portraits of leading 20th-century African American women have been publicly on view.

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The much-anticipated photography exhibit, I Dream A World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America, showcases late photographer Brian Lanker’s portraits of influential African American women who helped shape the contemporary United States. Now on view through June 13, 2020, at the Mulvane Art Museum in Topeka, Kansas, the meaningful exhibition marks the first time in 20 years that these images have been showcased. 

I Dream A World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America includes a collection of 75 black-and-white portraits featuring notable African American women from the 20th century—activists, lawyers, politicians, authors, athletes, performers, and others—among them Maya Angelou, Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King, and Oprah Winfrey, to name a few. Lanker’s portrait of Rosa Parks shows the civil rights activist inside the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, where the historic Montgomery Bus Boycott was organized in the mid-1950s.

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Other notable African American women featured in the project include Alice Walker, the Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist and author of The Color Purple (Harcourt, 1982); Brigadier General Sherian Cadoria, the highest ranking black woman in the U.S. Army; Althea Gibson, the tennis champion who became the first black person to play at Forest Hills and Wimbledon; and Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress (who now has a Brooklyn state park in her name). Interviews with the women are displayed alongside each portrait, which Lanker completed for his 1989 book of the same name. According to a passage in Lanker’s book, the group of images and interviews “presents a female view of the world as it should be, in their words.”

A portrait of Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Alice Walker appears in Brian Lanker’s photography book, “I Dream A World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1989).

These images have not been on public view since 1989, when they toured as part of an international exhibit that debuted in conjunction with the release of Lanker’s image book. The original photographs have been in the possession of Lanker’s family since the photographer’s 2011 passing—until this February, which marks Black History Month. That they’re appearing in Topeka is no accident: Lanker was working with the Topeka Capital-Journal when he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973, and the city has several connections to the Civil Rights Movement, most notably as the site where the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case originated in the 1950s, leading to the desegregation of schools across the United States. 

“This renowned exhibit of Lanker’s photographs will continue to drive the conversations on the historical importance of African American women in a place that was an epicenter of [the] civil rights movement and the start of Lanker’s career,” said Mulvane Art Museum director Connie Gibbons in a press release about the exhibit. “We hope to be able to have this exhibit travel so we can share the importance of the women’s stories with new generations.”

While plans have not yet been announced for the exhibition to travel after its Mulvane Art Museum run, the Topeka museum is extending its regular hours to “accommodate expected large crowds” while the photography collection is on view in the Kansas capital. Visitors can see I Dream A World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America at the Mulvane Art Museum from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays; from 10 a.m. to  5 p.m. on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays; and from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays. (Admission is free.) Lanker’s original photography book, which features a foreword by Maya Angelou, is also available to purchase online.

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>>Next: 15 Places to Learn About African American History

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