Edging Further Out in Charlotte

Contemporary Art Thrives in the Southern City

Jonell Logan

Entrance to galleries, Harvey B. Gantt CenterThe Barker came for me. “She needs you inside,” he said.

I went and entered the 10-foot high tent suspended from the ceiling in one of the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts+Culture’s galleries. There was a lot of nervous chatter outside but the moment I entered it all disappeared. The tent’s plush, red fabric stifled the outside world, limiting it to a dull murmur. I wasn’t sure why I was summoned to this sacred space but I knew she needed me.  For a second, I wondered if this was what Joice Heth experienced moments before she Michaela Pilar Brown performance was made spectacle — a curiosity for the Western World to behold.

“I need you to bind me.”

Artist Michaela Pilar Brown was about to open the "I See You: The Politics of Being" forum with her performance of “bittersalt … bittersweet.” The forum was a two-day experience that brought Charlotte audiences in contact with four emerging women artists of the Diaspora to explore concepts of experience, identity, history and culture through the visual arts.

Michaela Pilar Brown in a earlier moment, preparing tentAs programming for an exhibition of the same name, the forum provided an opportunity for the artists Endia Beal, Michaela Pilar Brown, Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz, and Alexandria Smith to expand on their ideas featured in the exhibition, and create space for dialogue among a growing contemporary arts community at the Gantt Center.

“Bind me tighter. Let the ribbon push into my flesh.”

Brown’s interactive piece builds off of performance art most notably associated with artists Marina Abramovic and Yoko Ono who use their bodies in acts of endurance and engagement with the audience.  "Bittersalt ... biteersweet" relies on audience participation, and questions concepts of sexuality, identity, and the commodification and objectification of the Audience at bittersalt...bittersweetblack female body throughout history. The piece is contextually tied to Heth’s experience as slave who was exhibited by PT Barnum as “the most astonishing and interesting curiosity in the World,” as well as the lives of other African women (e.g., Sarah Baartman) who were sold, toured and displayed in both life and death for white voyeurs.  The performance also questioned the notion of power and interaction, conservatvism, the legacy of race and the artist’s ability to present herself as a physical being.

“Don’t be afraid. It doesn’t hurt.”

The Barker began his instructions when I exited the tent.  He told the audience what to do, inviting them to experience this “Black Venus” by performing four prescribed acts: cut her binds, bind her further, give her sugar water or salt water.  Throughout the night her nude and bound form is liberated, tied, anointed, kissed by her partner and questioned. When the tent was closed, we began a probing discussion with political scientist Terza Silva Lima-Neves, Ph.D., and communications scholar Dakysha Moore, Ph.D., both of Johnson C. Smith University.

Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz before performanceWanda Raimundi-Ortiz preparing for performanceDay two of the forum began with a three-hour performance by artist Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz. A new piece from her “Reina” or Queen series, Ortiz documents her physically intensive performance to examine, transform and finally contend with her identity as her life changes:

"In a delicate condition" is the phrase I am reminded of often as my pregnancy progresses — as a woman that isn't used to being treated delicately, I am interested in the idea of precious items, protection and near immobilization….[This] new Queen piece, [is] one in which I allow the viewer to witness the creation of the porcelain queen, emphasizing the time consuming nature of packing something delicate in nature, sometimes to that object's very detriment.

Raimundi-Ortiz in performance Performed in the Gantt Center lobby, this new piece by Ortiz commanded rapt attention.  Her complete and astounding transformation resulted from attention to minute details of appearance and staging.  A beauty rising from within the masque increased our sense of her fragility – she almost became a doll or cherished object to be protected and preserved.

Endia Beal during forumAlexandria Smith traced the history of her work back to influences from her grandmother’s house in North Carolina. Her use of wallpaper designs, doily patterns, allusions to wooden floors and the ever-present pig-tail create an ever-expanding visual language that has informed her 2D and now 3D and performance-based work.

Like many children being raised in New York City, Smith was sent to the south during the summer to escape the sweltering concrete. Her paintings and collages in some way recreate that space, while manufacturing a place where a young woman’s identity can be formulated, transformed and re-constructed.

Alexandria Smith, What Remains, 2012, collage on board, 16 x 20Artist Endia Beal, most familiar on Facebook with her images from the “Can I Touch It” photo series, rounded out the individual artist presentations.  Beal styled conservatively-dressed white women’s hair in styles worn by black girls and women and photographed the results.

Alexandria Smith presentation at forumAfter her lecture, Endia Beal and executive coach Terri Moore discussed conflicts between cultural identity and the corporate workplace. The recent news about the military banning certain “black hairstyles” was a vibrant springboard for women to examine the connection and challenges they face daily when “dressing for success.”

The second day ended with a group dialogue with the artists and audience, moderated by Samantha Noel, a powerful voice throughout the weekend. Noel is a visiting professor of art history at Davidson College.  

Creating inroads to artists and arts organizations is critical to the continued success and presence of art museums—especially those with a specific cultural focus.  The illusion that museums are the spaces of the elite must change.  To that end, the "I See You: The Politics of Being" forum is one of a series of dialogues designed to bring scholars, contemporary artists and the public together for an investigation of issues that are relevant to us all.

Endia Beal, photograph from the Can I Touch It? series It was a long two days, filled with passionate discussions; camaraderie; and blood, sweat and tears (literally – I somehow cut my hand de-installing that beautiful tent). The artists shared an amazing experience with all of us.   The following week I spoke with Endia Beal, Ellen, photograph from the Can I Touch It? series someone who is not familiar with contemporary art and was a little unsure about the meaning of the I See You artists' work. I asked her what she thought about the forum. After a moment, she looked up and said, “I didn’t know what to expect, but this was beyond what I could have imagined.” 

It was for me as well.

About the Exhibition

I See You: The Politics of Being, January 26, 2014 - June 1, 2014, presents the work of six contemporary artists who expand the constructs of female identity in the 21st century. Surveying the range of ideas and illusions of the feminine mystique, this exhibition explores how women of the African Diaspora are seen from their perspective and through the eyes of others. Juxtaposing historical ideologies and the contemporary, and self-presentation and imposed representation, the viewer is centered within a global community of image making and identity from a female perspective. Whether through implications of the body, or figurative representations of women, this mixed-media exhibition explores the artists' desires to deconstruct and redefine history, identity and culture.

The artists in the exhibition are: ruby onyinyechi amanze, Endia Beal, Michaela Pilar Brown, Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz, Toyin Odutola and Alexandria Smith.

This exhibition was organized by Jonell Logan, director of education and public programs, at The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts+Culture. 

Signature sponsor: Wells Fargo; supporting sponsor: Novant Health.