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Joe Overstreet: Justice, Faith, Hope and Peace

Joseph Overstreet is the 2018 recipient of the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts presented by the Mississippi Arts Commission. Born in Conehatta, Mississippi, in 1933, Joe Overstreet is an artist with a record of accomplishments as an artist, arts promoter, and activist that spans 60 years. 

Along with Sam Gilliam, a past recipient of the award, Overstreet is one of the oldest living Mississippi artists who were part of the “Great Migration.” From rural Mississippi and growing up in a family that highly valued education, Overstreet forged an incredibly rich artistic career for himself. He received formal art training in Oakland, California. In the Bay Area, Overstreet met other African-American artists, such as Sargent Johnson, who became role models for him. During the 1960s,Overstreet created dynamic works in response to the Civil Rights Movement, including The New Aunt Jemima (1964) and Justice, Faith, Hope and Peace (1968).

On April 5, 1968, the day after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, Joseph Overstreet began work on the four-panel canvas, Justice, Faith, Hope and Peace. Like Sam Gilliam, who painted large soaked canvases for his Martin Luther King series, Overstreet responded to the assassination with an abstract composition. The painting is reminiscent of geometric abstraction, but instead of forming an ordered pattern, the overlapping shapes are arranged in jarring contrasts. The vibration of the shapes and colors creates a sense of tension. Justice, Faith, Hope, and Peace was featured in the exhibition Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties (Brooklyn Museum, 2014). According to the exhibition catalog, the piece projects an “aura of possibility.” This is the first exhibition of Overstreet’s iconic painting from the Civil Rights era in Mississippi.

A fountain inside Tompkins Square Park in the East Village in New York City served as inspiration for Justice, Faith, Hope, and Peace. Not far from his studio, Joe Overstreet went to the park on the morning of April 5 and sat near the large monument called the Temperance Fountain. Along its stone canopy are inscribed the words Faith, Hope, Charity and Temperance. Inspired by these ideals, Overstreet adopted two of the words (Faith and Hope) and added Justice and Peace which he adopted from the speeches of Martin Luther King and Adam Clayton Powell Jr., an African-American congressman from Harlem, New York.

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