At the Menil, a Visual History of Nonviolent Protest

From Gandhi to Tiananmen Square, a new exhibition traces traditions of civil disobedience through photographs and artifacts.

By Zachary Sachs September 30, 2014 Published in the October 2014 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Some of Gandhi’s earthly possessions, ca. 1948–50

In 1948, following the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, an unknown photographer took a picture of the Indian leader’s few possessions—sandals, a few bowls, a pair of eyeglasses (see above). Josef Helfenstein, director of the Menil Collection, recalled the first time he saw the photograph. “I was a teenager toward the end of the ’60s, when things were in upheaval,” he said. “The Vietnam War, the student rebellion, the Cold War, wars everywhere. It was the time when I became aware of the world. And when I saw this picture [while] reading Gandhi’s autobiography, for me it became like a testament, like a poem. And I never forgot it.” 

That image was the seed that eventually became Experiments with Truth: Gandhi and Images of Nonviolence, which opens at the Menil this month. An expansive overview of art inspired by traditions of protest, it includes a kaleidoscopic array of art and artifacts ranging from the Dan Flavin fluorescent light sculpture “untitled (to the young woman and men murdered in Kent State)” to a 19th-century bust of Abraham Lincoln made from wax, hair, glass, and silk. 

Though Gandhi is the focal point, the exhibition explores nonviolent movements across the globe, with a focus on photography. It includes a daguerreotype of Henry David Thoreau, a photomechanical print of Florence Nightingale, silver gelatin prints of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela, the famous AP wire photo “Tank Man (Tiananmen Square, Beijing),” and photojournalist Stuart Isett’s 1995 photos of Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. 

“Nonviolence is not passive behavior,” said Helfenstein, who has been working on the exhibition ever since becoming the Menil’s director a decade ago. “It’s the most courageous action you can take. And it takes a great deal of self-control, often achieved through spiritual exercises. So those things—the spiritual, the political—are impossible to separate.” 

A sizable portfolio of rarely-seen photographs shows Henri Cartier-Bresson blurring the distinction between historical document and art in a series of black-and-white stills taken in India around the time of Gandhi’s death in 1948. Cartier-Bresson came to Houston as a guest of the de Menils in 1957, and one of the photos taken during that visit, of the Third Ward, is also on exhibit. The couple’s legacy is apparent elsewhere too, in the exhibition’s numerous objects taken from the museum’s permanent collection, objects that represent the de Menils’ “utopian humanist mission,” as Helfenstein puts it. 

Over two dozen cultural institutions are partnering with the Menil to produce a series of citywide lectures and events in conjunction with the exhibition. Of particular interest are visits by Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson of the Mahatma and author of his biography, and James Lawson, who worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr.

Helfenstein hopes that visitors will be as captivated by the show today as he was by that photo of Gandhi’s possessions almost a half century ago. After all, it’s not as if the need for peaceful protest has ceased. “This is not just a historical thing,” he said. “These works exist in the 21st century, in the context of Ferguson, [Missouri], in the context of social justice or the lack thereof. These are ongoing conflicts.”

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