Celestia Morgan: Catalyst for Social Change

The positive words Celestia Morgan tells her students sound like an affirmation for her own future: “You have the power to change your own community for the better and art can be a catalyst for social change.”

An old, unpainted two-story deserted house sitting alone among vacant, unkempt lots.
Celestia Morgan, “Norwood,” from the “Redline” series, 2016, archival pigment print, 16 x 20 inches. Image courtesy of the artist.

The camera is alumna Celestia Morgan’s way of exploring, exposing and changing her world, from racist housing practices to her grandmother’s cooking. Much of her photography is based on and inspired by her and her family’s experiences in the neighborhood of Ensley in Birmingham where she grew up and where generations of her family have lived.

Morgan’s collection of works, Redline, her MFA thesis exhibition in the Sarah Moody Gallery of Art in 2017, tells the story of Ensley and nearby neighborhoods through photographs and historical documents in a unique way, blending artistic and documentary methods. Redline reveals the tradition – and continuing impact – of the explicit racial segregation embedded in Birmingham neighborhoods through the lens of one of its residents.

RaMell Ross, writer, photographer, filmmaker and assistant professor at Brown University, said that Morgan is “prioritizing the community” she depicts, “forefronting what photography has not done in the past [by] properly representing it.”

Photograph of a woman standing against the walls of an old house with peeling paint.
Photo of Celestia Morgan by Cary Norton. Image courtesy Cary Norton.

And Morgan’s photography is gaining attention. Works from her Redline series have been exhibited at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, the National Public Housing Museum in Chicago, Juxtaposition Arts in Minneapolis, the Mobile (Ala.) Museum of Art and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, and have been written about or published in Lenscratch, Bitter Southerner and Burnaway, among others. The Do Good Fund and Southern Foodways Alliance have exhibited her work. And now, the Birmingham Museum of Art has opened a solo exhibition, Celestia Morgan: REDLINE, that will run through Feb. 16, 2020.

Teaching is an immediate as well as long-term way to influence one’s community and Morgan teaches middle schoolers in the Birmingham City Schools, as well as undergraduates in photography as an adjunct instructor at UA.

“When I teach, I definitely talk about identity, especially in the African American community. Many of our children know who they are, but some fail to realize the power they have within them to make a difference in the world, even at their young age,” says Morgan. “I want my students to understand that their voice can be heard visually.”

For more information about The University of Alabama’s programs in studio art and art history, visit our Degree Programs page.