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Muhammad Ali Exhibit Headed for Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Gordon Parks Photo Collection Opens in February

Muhammad Ali interviewed by reporters in London, England, Muhammad Ali interviewed by reporters in London, England, 1966. (Courtesy | The Gordon Parks Foundation)
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The “Greatest of All Time” is coming to Kansas City. 

Never-before-seen photographs of American heavyweight champion, Olympic gold medalist and activist Muhammad Ali will be on display in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art starting in February 2020. 

The exhibit, titled “Gordon Parks x Muhammad Ali: The Image of a Champion, 1966/1970”, will feature photographs from the prominant photojournalist’s two assignments covering Ali for Life magazine.

The collection will take museum goers back to a formative period in Ali’s legacy, both as a boxer and activist. Parks, a native of Fort Scott, Kansas, profiled Ali in 1966, when the heavyweight champ was at the center of controversy as an objector of the Vietnam War and recent convert to Islam. Four years later, Parks was once again behind the lens as Ali trained for a shot at Jerry Quarry in 1970.

The 55-plus smokey, black-and-white images of the icon should delight fans of photography and sports alike. But the collection goes even deeper, exposing a shared struggle between the fighter and photographer.


Muhammad Ali at Lord’s Cricket Ground, St. John’s Wood, London, England, 1966. (Courtesy | The Gordon Parks Foundation)

“Gordon Parks and Muhammad Ali were highly celebrated and influential cultural figures,” says Julián Zugazagoitia, Menefee D. and Mary Louise Blackwell, CEO and Director of the Nelson-Atkins. “Though they had different generational experiences, both men struggled against bigotry and prejudice in their fight for social justice and civil rights, and they both had a keen understanding of the media’s power to shape public opinion.”

“What we are emphasizing in our exhibition is really the way that Parks and Ali came together,” says Nelson-Atkins Curator of Photography April Watson. “The projects that he did on Ali really became a way of using his platform in Life to shape a sympathetic vision of Ali at a time when many Americans, particularly Life magazine readers — the demographic for Life was for the most part white and middle class — were very conflicted about how they might feel about him.”

Parks was on assignment with Life for more than 20 years, where he became best known for projects focused on racial segregation, poverty and sports, along with in-depth, emotional profiles. In addition to Ali, Parks profiled prominent figures like Malcolm X, Barbara Streisand and Stokley Carmichael.

Life’s 1966 Ali profile, titled The Redemption of the Champion”, demonstrates both Parks’ exceptional ability to capture raw human emotion in his photographs, along with his conscious effort to raise a mirror to the magazine’s readers. The project’s photos, many of which went unpublished, will be included in the Kansas City exhibit next year. 

Watson says the exhibit packs a thought-provoking punch that remains relevant in 2020, which could land like Parks’ intended 50 years ago.

“There are a lot of resonances with today, particularly if you think about people like Colin Kaepernick or Serena Williams — how African American athletes in particular are treated by the media, or are able to use the media to their advantage,” says Watson. “We are well past the era of Life magazine, but I still think that these core issues of how one’s public image is shaped and how it depends on preconceptions that are changing is still very relevant.”

“Gordon Parks x Muhammad Ali: The Image of a Champion, 1966/1970” opens at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art Feb. 14, 2020 and runs through July 5.

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