Press Release

Gordon Parks, Muhammad Ali Exhibition to Open at Nelson-Atkins

Event Date: 
14 February 2020 to 5 July 2020
Kansas City, MO
PDF icon Download PDF (425.87 KB)
Download PDF to read the full Press Release >

Image of a Champion Features Many Works Never Before Published

The charismatic and controversial American heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, as photographed by Gordon Parks, is the subject of an exhibition at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City that runs through July 5. Gordon Parks x Muhammad Ali: The Image of a Champion, 1966/1970 was organized by the Nelson-Atkins in collaboration with the Gordon Parks Foundation and features approximately 55 photographs Parks took of Ali while on assignment for Life magazine. The museum has recently acquired approximately 13 works, including selections from the American Champion portfolio, which will be on view. 

The photographs in the exhibition derive from two in-depth assignments for Life, the first in 1966 and the second in 1970. Image of a Champion emphasizes the way Parks (1912-2006) and Ali (1942-2016) came together for these projects to shape a sympathetic public image of the young champion during this tumultuous period in Ali’s career. 

“During their lives, Parks and Ali transcended their respective roles as journalist and athlete to make sense of the American struggle against racial injustice,” said Julián Zugazagoitia, Menefee D. and Mary Louise Blackwell CEO & Director of the Nelson-Atkins. “Though they held different views on the challenges they faced as black men, they understood each other as few others could.”

Parks’ esteemed position at Life gave him a vast influential platform. Parks had priveleged access and pictured Ali in unguarded moments, devoid of the bravado that had come to define his public persona. He photographed Ali as he trained in Miami and London for an overseas fight against Henry Cooper, meeting with fans, practicing his religion and navigating throngs of reporters.  Many of Parks’ photographs suggest a meta-awareness of the media’s fascination with Ali.

“As a seasoned journalist, Parks well understood the power wielded by the media to shape public opinion,” said April M. Watson, Photography Curator at the Nelson-Atkins and curator of the exhibition. “Ali, who was a master of media hype, could easily have been a challenging subject, were it not for the trust he placed in Parks. Their mutual respect resulted in a collective portrait that is at once intimate, nuanced, and earnest: qualities not often associated with the controversial young champion during these years.” 

This exhibition will be accompanied by the publication Gordon Parks x Muhammad Ali, published in collaboration with the Gordon Parks Foundation and printed by Steidl. The book includes a foreword by Julián Zugazagoitia and Peter W. Kunhardt, Jr.; with essays by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, April M. Watson, and Gerald Early. 

The following programs accompany this exhibition.

Gordon Parks: A Renaissance Dance

Friday, February 21

6:30–7:30 p.m. Atkins Auditorium

Celebrating the many talents of Gordon Parks, Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey present a new mixed-media production inspired by Parks’ photographs of Muhammad Ali and the artist’s 1990 musical composition for the ballet, Martin.

Parks X Ali: Black Athletes, the Media, and “the Champ” in the 1960s

Thursday, March 12

6-7 p.m. Atkins Auditorium

What did Muhammad Ali symbolize during his early, controversial career? How did the mass media attempt to shape his public image, and how has this legacy informed the actions of contemporary black athletes? Join curator April M. Watson for a lively conversation with Damion Thomas, Curator of Sports, National Museum of African American History, and William Rhoden, former New York Times sports columnist & author, as they discuss these fascinating topics. 

The Curator is IN!

Friday, April 17

6:30–7, 7:30–8 p.m. Gallery L11 

Join curator April M. Watson for a thoughtful conversation about works in this exhibition.

Film Program

The Learning Tree

Saturday, March 21

1:30-3:30 p.m. Atkins Auditorium

1969 | M | 107 min. 

The Learning Tree (1969) is a semi-autobiographical tale based on Parks’ 1963 coming-of-age novel about a boy confronting racism and tragedy in rural Kansas. The film, for which Parks served as writer, director, producer, and composer, was the first release from a major Hollywood studio to be directed by an African American. 


Saturday, March 28

1:30–3:30 p.m. Atkins Auditorium

1971 | R | 100 min.

One of the earliest Blaxploitation films, Shaft is perhaps Parks’ most well-known movie. Released in 1971 and starring Richard Roundtree, the action film follows ultra-cool private detective John Shaft as he works to recover the kidnapped daughter of a Harlem mob boss. 

Concerned Student 1950

Thursday, June 25

6:30-7:30 p.m.

2016 │NR│32 min.

OFF-SITE | Bruce R Watkins Cultural Center

FREE tickets through Eventbrite

6-6:30 p.m. Light Reception

This documentary looks inside the peaceful student protests that took place in 2015 over racist incidents at the University of Missouri. Bolstered by support of the University’s football team, the film offers a 21st century example of how young athletes have built upon Ali’s legacy of social activism. A panel discussion with Delia Gillis, Professor of History and Africana Studies at the University of Central Missouri and Raymond Doswell, Curator and Education Director for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum will follow the screening.


Read the Release
PDF icon Download PDF (425.87 KB)
Download PDF to read the full Press Release >
Gordon Parks, American (1912–2006). Untitled (Champburger), Miami, Florida, 1970. Gelatin silver print, 16 x 20 inches. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, anonymous gift, 2019.14.12. Courtesy of and copyright The Gordon Parks Foundation.

Other news about Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Press Release
Nelson-Atkins Names William Keyse Rudolph As Deputy Director, Curatorial Affairs
27 February 2020
Press Release
Art of Illusion Photography Exhibition Challenges Adage ‘Seeing is Believing’
5 February 2020
Press Release
Rare Daguerreotype Purchased by Hall Family Foundation for Nelson-Atkins
22 November 2019
Press Release
Nelson-Atkins Exhibition Access+Ability Features Latest Technological Breakthroughs in Accessible Design
11 October 2019
Press Release
Queen Nefertari: Eternal Egypt Celebrates Artistic Achievements From 3,000 Years Ago
24 September 2019