Gantt Center’s “Visual Vanguard” Exhibit Highlights Contemporary Black Artists in The Carolinas

By Yvonne Bynoe

Portrait of The Reverend William Barber III by Ednia Beal

Visual Vanguard: An Exhibition of Contemporary Black Carolina Artists is the inaugural biennial for The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Art + Culture located in Charlotte, North Carolina. The exhibition centers the work of Black artists associated with North Carolina and South Carolina. Curators, Stephen Hayes and David Wilson, both artists from Durham, were intent on presenting Black artists in the region producing exemplary work but still operating under the public’s radar.

Wilson stated, “Stephen and I knew that we didn’t want the traditional, clichéd representation of North Carolina and South Carolina.” Consequently, through what Wilson calls an “organic” selection process, the 25 artists featured in Visual Vanguard are a diverse group: emerging and mid-career; natives and transplants to North Carolina and South Carolina; and formally trained and self-taught artists. 

Wilson’s public art pieces can be found throughout North Carolina, including in the new police headquarters in Durham and at the Gantt, the site of his crowning achievement, Divergent Threads, Lucent Memories, a 500-square foot glass mural. Hayes is best known for his traveling exhibit, Cash Crop, named for its centerpiece “Cash Crop,” 15 life-sized casts that are each shackled and bound to a wooden shipping pallet, representing the 15 million African people who were kidnapped by Europeans and enslaved in the New World between 1540 and 1850.

The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Art + Culture is an institution that is uniquely positioned to explore contemporary Black artistic production in the region. The museum is named after the first Black mayor of Charlotte and the first African-American to attend Clemson State University in South Carolina. It was designed by African-American architect, Phil Freelon, who was inspired by the Myers Street School, the oldest school for African-American students in Charlotte that opened in 1882 in a tobacco barn.

The Myers Street School (undated and uncredited) from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Story

The Myers Street School, located in the historically Black community of Brooklyn, had been nicknamed the “Jacob’s Ladder School” because of its wooden fire escapes. It operated until the late 1960s when, under Urban Renewal, Brooklyn and the Myers Street School were razed, paving the way for the creation of Uptown, a gentrified downtown district where the Gantt is located.

Visual Vanguard escapes the trap of the single Black Southern story by presenting a variety of perspectives, mediums, and artistic styles. Street inspired and futuristic paintings seamlessly coexist with conceptual works and figurative renderings. In addition to paintings, the exhibit showcases sculptures, woodworks, crocheted dolls, and textile pieces. The works in the exhibit aren’t tethered to conventional Southern themes such as pastoral landscapes, dignified poverty, or the fight against Jim Crow. However, some of the most compelling works use a modern lens to examine Black identity in the U.S, social justice issues, and Black Southern culture.

One captivating image within the exhibit that is specific to North Carolina is a large photograph of The Reverend William Barber II at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh by Winston-Salem photographer, Endia Beal. Beal’s practice merges art with social justice. Her photograph was featured in Time Magazine as one of the “Best Portraits of 2020.”

The Reverend Barber came to national attention in 2013 as then President of the North Carolina chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. Barber led Moral Monday, a series of nonviolent protests at the North Carolina General Assembly in opposition to policies considered immoral, including dramatic cuts to education, social programs, and unemployment benefits; rejecting Medicaid expansion; new restrictions on voting and labor rights; and restarting the death penalty.

“Byproduct” by Clarence Heyward

Clarence Heyward lives in Raleigh and was the recipient of The Emerging Artist in Residence at Artspace, Raleigh in 2021.

Heyward is known for his acrylic portraits and charcoal renderings, depicting the people whose stories he feels have been omitted from fine art. He cites the paucity of artwork representing Black Americans in U.S. museums and galleries as his incentive to create paintings that preserve their legacy.

Byproduct is part of his Descendants of Sire series created for his 2020 solo exhibition as a Brightwood Fellow at Anchorlight Gallery in Raleigh. Heyward said, “Byproduct is a self-portrait…examining my relationship with America as a Black man. The concept is one that I visit frequently, as it’s always on my mind.” Heyward adds, “The American flag is a recurring motif in my work….It’s my way of saying this is my/our country too.”

Heyward was born and raised in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY, the home of rap artist Biggie Smalls. Heyward credits his Bed-Stuy roots for his courage to paint his truth, saying, “Brooklyn instilled a fearlessness in me that is the cornerstone of my practice. I am unafraid to make the art that I need to make. I can tell my stories, our stories, without any censorship.”

Heyward relocated to North Carolina in 2005 after college and worked in a management position at a water delivery company until 2018 when he decided to pursue art full-time. Heyward, a husband and father, says that he made the decision because, “He wanted his life to serve a larger purpose,” and was encouraged by a Sunday morning sermon to bet on himself and become an artist.

Heyward’s work is in the collections of several private and public institutions.

“Uppity: The Blacker The Berry, The Sweeter The Juice” by Bev Smith

Charlotte native, Bev Smith said that she chose to express herself through quilts as a way of preserving her Southern heritage.

As a little girl, Smith visited her grandmother in South Carolina. Nestled under her grandmother’s hand-sewn, “offbeat phrasing” quilts that she said resembled West African kente cloth, she felt safe. Smith’s work focuses on the stories that she heard from her mother, grandmother, and aunts about topics Black folks considered controversial or even taboo.

Smith’s Uppity: The Blacker the Berry, The Sweeter the Juice is part of a series which is a Black woman’s examination of female sexuality and the traditional roles of women. Uppity is an old Southern term that Whites routinely used to describe a Black person who didn’t know his or her [subordinate] “place” in society. Smith says, “This Uppity can handle any stereotypes thrown her way. She is the kindred spirit of Bettye Saar’s ‘The Liberation of Aunt Jemima.’ She is comfortable in her own skin. Dressed in her tight-fitting pants, her curves are there for the world to see….”

Smith’s references to black berries have dual meanings. It conjures up the taste of sweet blackberries plucked off a tree. “The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice” is also a saying that affirms darker complexions that has existed in Black American popular culture since 1896. It was famously referenced in Wallace Thurman’s controversial 1929 book, The Blacker The Berry about colorism among Black Americans. Most recently, rap artist Kendrick Lamar used the line, “The Blacker The Berry” as the title for his 2015 song about the apparent hypocrisy of being pro-Black after having committed crimes against other Blacks.

Note: Uppity: The Blacker the Berry, The Sweeter the Juice was removed from the exhibit in mid-November so that it could travel to Art Basel Miami.

“All That Glitters Ain’t Gold” by Stephanie J. Woods

Stephanie J. Woods was a 2021 Artist-in-Residence at Black Rock Senegal, a residency program in Dakar founded by Kehinde Wiley.

The multimedia artist was born in Seneca and raised in Charlotte. Woods’ practice is rooted in her experiences growing up in the South. She is known for works that examine cultural assimilation and how presenting a public persona has become integral to Black identity. Woods’ entry into art began in middle school when her mother had her take sewing lessons from a local seamstress after school. She discovered photography as a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Subsequently, Woods’ art combines photographs with textiles, often including culturally relevant symbols or phrases. 

What Glitters Ain’t Always Gold II is part of a series of large scale, laminated textile works that were shown at her 2020 solo exhibition, False Illusion, at Tiger Strikes Asteroid in Brooklyn, New York. Woods uses family photographs found in her childhood home and a hand-sewn quilt “to recreate and rediscover” and “memories and moments in time.” Woods collaborated with her mother in creating one section of the quilt for What Glitters Ain’t Always Gold II and worked alone on the other section. Woods next transferred scanned photographs of family members onto the completed quilt. She drew ovals around the subjects’ eyes and hands to bring attention to the person’s body language, the performative elements of their poses. She’s querying what the person was feeling or wanting to convey to the viewer when the photograph was taken.

The quilt has a sculptural presentation because Woods laminated it with furniture vinyl. Woods uses the vinyl to reference the clear protective pages found in traditional photograph albums and the plastic coverings older Black folks used to place on their living room sofas and chairs to protect them from wear. Woods alludes to how the vinyl and plastic covers preserve the things in our homes that we cherish. Moreover, the plastic barrier over Woods’ photographed quilt metaphorically prevents the viewer from penetrating the inner lives of the Black subjects.

Woods is an Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Arts at the University of New Mexico. Her work is featured in the permanent collection of the Virginia Museum of Fine Art, located in Richmond, VA.

“Keep It In The Family (Live the City, Kill The Hood)” by Andre Leon Gray

André Leon Gray delivers what is arguably the most poignant work with Keep It In The Family (Live the City, Kill the Hood). The mixed media work is made of a vintage quilt with items affixed to it, including photographs of Black people and a personal document. Above the quilt is a discarded realtor’s For Sale sign. A cinder block reclaimed from a demolished house in East Raleigh is placed in front of the quilt.

Gray’s work tackles the gentrification of the historically Black communities of East Raleigh and South Park in Raleigh and the displacement of its longtime Black residents. The work also addresses Black neighborhoods in cities around the country that are shrinking or disappearing altogether because their lower property values, a residual effect of redlining, attract White buyers en masse. Black families often sell their family homes for what they perceive to be a financial windfall (rather than renting them out) only to see property values quickly skyrocket after they’re gone. Gray’s work also speaks to the loss of longtime Black families and how their presence contributed to the fabric of their neighborhoods, an important aspect overlooked in the economic analysis of real estate sales.

Born in Raleigh, Gray is a self-trained visual artist who focuses on thought-provoking mixed media assemblages, sculptures, installations, tar paintings, and drawings inspired by African-Americans and their lived experience. He transforms discarded materials into a tableau of history, spirituality, and politics which he calls “eye gumbo.” Gray wants his work to create a dialogue with the viewer, so he exhibits his work in cultural venues that prioritize access and education over profit.

“All of It” by Percy King

Percy King has gained a reputation for his three-dimensional wood portraits that are innovative and aesthetically interesting. The subjects for his early portraiture works include rap artists, Snoop Dogg and Lauryn Hill; poet, Langston Hughes; and President Barack Obama. His series of works created during the COVID-19 quarantine encompass social commentary. The Columbus Museum of Art acquired his haunting 2020 work, Strange Fruit for its permanent collection. Strange Fruit references the 1939 song “Strange Fruit” about lynchings of Black Americans made famous by Billie Holiday. King created the wood sculpture from the vantage point of a young Black girl watching the video of the murder of George Floyd by a police officer on her smartphone.

For All Of It, from his quarantine series, is on loan to the Gantt from the private collection of Sandra and Ben Thorman. King had taken photographs of the Charlotte youngster with various facial expressions a year earlier. However, he began creating his portrait sculpture in the aftermath of the killing of Breonna Taylor by police. King said that, in terms of civil unrest and police brutality, “We’ve lived through it before, but our children are experiencing it for the first time.” For All of It focused on the emotions that Black children are feeling during these turbulent times. The young man is venting his anger and frustration about what’s going on.

The mixed media artist, originally from Columbus, Ohio, now lives in suburban Charlotte. King’s been an artist for 20 years and his career has been anything but conventional. A former football player for Ohio State University, who briefly played for the Kansas City Chiefs, King began as a hobbyist carpenter doing repairs around his house then his artistic talents led him to craft furniture that he felt reflected Black American design. Several years later, he started creating his 3-D wood portraiture sculptures.

To create his works, King employs a process that he’s named “Shaolin Wood Technique,” a homage to the Wu-Tang Clan’s album Once Upon A time In Shaolin (2015) as well the 2011 martial arts movie, Shaolin. He begins by making drawings from photographs of the subject. The images are digitized, then King creates simple, abstract shapes. He hand cuts the shapes from plywood, MDF, or Masonite and layers them into a three-dimensional relief or form.

Visual Vanguard: An Exhibition of Contemporary Black Carolina Artists has accessible works that will appeal to people making their first visit to the Gantt Center. For longstanding Gantt supporters, the exhibit introduces them to talented artists in the region whom they may not know. The exhibition is on view until January 1, 2022. 

Full Listing Artists In This Exhibition:

Carla Aaron-Lopez, Endia Beal, Dare Coulter, Steven M. Cozart, de’Angelo Dia, Janelle Dunlap, André Leon Gray, Clarence Heyward, Percy King, Marcus Kiser, KOLPEACE, Georgie Nakima, Dimeji Onafuwa, Jermaine Powell, Lakeshia T. Reid, Sheldon Scott, Beverly Y. Smith, William Paul Thomas, Telvin Wallace, Torreah “Cookie” Washington, Tony Weaver, Aniqua Wilkerson, Antoine Williams, Jason Woodberry, Stephanie J. Woods.

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YVONNE BYNOE is the founder of the online platform @shelovesblackart which highlights visual art from the African diaspora with the mission to encourage more people of African descent to collect art. She is a former attorney, cultural critic and author of several books.


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