Charlotte artist Carla Aaron-Lopez, one of 25 artists invited to be part of the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture’s first biennial, would rather talk about other artists than her own work.
When asked to name a couple of artists she admires, the CMS Whitewater Middle School art teacher got excited: “It’s a definite yes for Jermaine Powell.
“He is communicating a message of how he sees Black youth culture,” she said. “The execution is phenomenal. I can walk up to it and begin crafting my own story about what I’m (seeing). He gives you so much to think about.”
Powell is among the emerging and mid-career artists featured in “Visual Vanguard: An Exhibition of Contemporary Black Carolina Artists.” The Gantt Center expects to host its second biennial in 2023.
The exhibition examines the “struggles, strengths and celebrations of Black creativity” in the Carolinas. It opened Aug. 28 and runs through Jan. 17.
The show features artists with ties to North and South Carolina through birth, residence or education, and whose work has been influenced by Southern culture and tradition.
The exhibition may reflect tradition, but it is not traditional.
“I haven’t seen anything like this from the Gantt,” Aaron-Lopez said. “I think this is the most contemporary thing I’ve ever seen the Gantt do.”
Artists as curators
The Gantt tapped two North Carolina artists to serve as guest curators — Stephen Hayes Jr. and David Wilson.
Hayes’ exhibition, “Cash Crop,” (which was on display at the Gantt in 2012) has been traveling and exhibiting for nearly a decade. Hayes is based in Durham, as is Wilson, who explores the connection between architecture, nature and the public.
Aaron-Lopez and Hayes have been fans of each other’s work for years. They were classmates at North Carolina Central University, and both earned masters of fine arts from The Savannah College of Art and Design. Aaron-Lopez’s degree is in photography; Hayes’ is in sculpture.
“I personally wanted to make sure this exhibition was all about the artists,” said David Taylor, the Gantt’s president and CEO. “Letting two artists choose which artists to feature seemed like a good way to accomplish that.
“Both David and Stephen have been supporters of the Gantt,” Taylor said. “They’ve done work here. And they were at a point in their careers where they wanted to expand their portfolios. … They are introducing some really powerful artists to our community.”
Durham is well-represented in “Visual Vanguard.” Painter William Paul Thomas, Dare Coulter, a sculptor; artist and writer Endia Beal, and comic writer and illustrator Tony Weaver, Jr. all hail from the Bull City.
Representing South Carolina are fiber artist Torreah “Cookie” Washington and multimedia artist Sheldon Scott, who now lives in Washington, D.C., and created an installation piece from neon and Brazil nuts.
Other artists in the show are from Charlotte. In addition to Aaron-Lopez, the list includes de’Angelo Dia – who created a performance piece, Janelle Dunlap, Percy King, Marcus Kiser, Jason Woodberry, J. Stacey Utley and Beverly Smith.
Aaron-Lopez called Smith’s quilts “phenomenal and very well-crafted. She is a quiet assassin in the Charlotte arts community. Her work, to me, represents contemporary Black art. It’s definitely Southern because of the quilt aspect, but the attitude and the characters she puts on top of her quilts are so contemporary.
“And then there’s Stephanie Woods. Her work reminds me of a memory of a time past,” Aaron-Lopez said. “She does these blown-up photographs from her youth, and then they’re encased in the furniture vinyl that your grandparents probably had.”
An accompanying exhibition catalog has essays by Tamara Brothers, the North Carolina Arts Council deputy director, and Charleston’s Ambassador for the Arts, the painter and printmaker Jonathan Green.
A few show-stoppers
Taylor highlighted a few works he thinks may stop visitors in their tracks.
“The fluorescent installation that Sheldon Scott has done with Brazil nuts grabs your attention,” he said. “Percy King’s work with wood is three-dimensional, but you don’t recognize that at first. You don’t see that until you get right up on it.”
“We have a beautiful 63×42-inch photograph of (civil rights activist) Dr. (William) Barber done by Endia Beal, who has shown (“I SEE YOU: The Politics of Being”) at the Gantt Center and been a McColl (Center for Art + Innovation) resident. He’s kind of presiding over the gallery.”
He cited dolls by Aniqua Wilkerson and added, “Andre Leon Gray — who’s going to be doing a residency at the McColl — does these presentations in fabric that speak to how he how he has lived and the challenges we have with affordable housing.” Gray is a self-trained multidisciplinary artist whose work has been exhibited from Miami to Minneapolis.
Art for sale
Most of the work at “Visual Vanguard” is for sale.
While there won’t be prices displayed, as you’d see in a gallery, Taylor said visitors are encouraged to connect with artists to get information on pricing and availability. The Gantt staff can facilitate introductions.
Taylor said he feels the guest curators chose artists who will be influential in the coming decades.
He hopes it’s just as memorable for the artists. “My hope is that they’ll look back on this intersection with the Gantt Center and see it as a pivotal moment in their careers.”
What: The Gantt’s first biennial exhibit is “Visual Vanguard: An Exhibition of Contemporary Black Carolina Artists.”
When: The exhibit is on display through Jan. 17.
Where: Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, 551 S. Tryon St.
Details: Learn more at ganttcenter.org.
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