Automobility

20th-century automobile-centered exhibition “Vehicles of Change” is on display at the Telfair Museum

Joan Liftin's Judy, Mt. Sterling, Kentucky
Joan Liftin's Judy, Mt. Sterling, Kentucky
From century to century, if we can depend on anything to stay constant, it’s change.

The Telfair Museum’s latest photography exhibition, “Vehicles of Change,” by assistant curator, Anne-Solene Bayan, is currently on display in the Jepson Center.

“Vehicles of Change” is an exhibition featuring more than a dozen works from the Telfair Museum’s permanent collection in collaboration with the Savannah Municipal Archives. Featuring 20th-century photographs from the museum’s collection, this exhibition shines a light on the liberating impact of automobility in mid-20th century America.

“This is a time at the end of the 1950s where the interstate highways are being built,” Bayan said. “We didn’t have that before, so hubs are being connected. More Americans from the ‘60s-‘80s are having more access to cars, so it’s creating this network where people can travel more and exchange ideas. As a result, I think it definitely helped to fuel a civil rights movement, so it’s all connected.”

The exhibition reveals archives during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, where buses and cars were used to combat systemic racism and segregation enforced by Jim Crow. This was exemplified most famously in the Montgomery bus boycott and in the Freedom Riders’ journeys to the South, according to Telfair archives.

Moreover, exhibition details highlight the modification of American landscapes during that time — with drive-ins, parking lots and highways — which created new spaces and possibilities for leisure, consumption and self-expression.

While searching for relevant works within Telfair’s collection, Bayan said she discovered and incorporated Joan Liftin’s “Drive-Ins” series into the show.

“She argues that these [drive-ins] are fascinating spaces because people who are marginalized, like queer folks or persons of color, can come here and socialize and interact and it’s sort of a safe space,” Bayan said.

Bayan’s exhibition also relays the light-hearted contrast of the newly-developed leisure spaces.

“She is interested in what it feels like to be in a drive-in, like the sensorial experience of being outside under the stars,” Bayan said.

“The youts are hooking up in the back of the cars, they’re having little parties and parents are getting their alone time while the kids are watching ‘Snow White.’”

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Contrarily, Bayan also included Civil Rights era-centered works such as Frederick Baldwin’s “Voter Registration, Chatham County Courthouse” in her exhibition.

Frederick C. Baldwin's  The Ballot Bus II  - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE JEPSON CENTER FOR THE ARTS
Photo Courtesy of the Jepson Center for the Arts
Frederick C. Baldwin's The Ballot Bus II
Bayan points out Civil Rights leaders such as Lester Hankerson and Hosea Williams posing with pride in front of a car that says “Free Ride, No Excuses” used to mobilize Black people to vote, so that those votes could be used to elicit change within their political and social climates.

“These are treasures from our collection because they deal with the Savannah community, but also this time in Civil Rights, so it feels endlessly rich for Telfair to show these works,” Bayan said. “We’ve never shown them from the automobile aspect.”

An enthusiastic by-stander found the exhibition interesting and engaging.

“I’ve been to a gazillion museums all over the world, and this is the most interesting in terms of how you folks have presented information,” said Deborah Devedjain. “It’s a very open and engaging way of doing it.”

The “Vehicles of Change” exhibition debuted Feb. 27 and it will remain on display through Aug. 22 at the Telfair Museums’ Jepson Center, 207 W. York St. Visit telfair.org for information.

About The Author

Brandy Simpkins

Brandy Simpkins is the community/ event journalist for Connect Savannah. Simpkins is a born and raised Savannahian and an alumna of Savannah Savannah State University where she received her B.A. in English Language & Literature. Simpkins enjoys writing more than anything else in the world. She is a curious journalist,...
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