Amid the din of shots fired at black men by white cops and the shouts of protest that ensue, artists can bring nuance to discussions of racial violence.
In the Ackland's second-floor Study Gallery, UNC-Chapel Hill art professor John Bowles has chosen twenty works from the Ackland's collection in which African-American artists deal with both physical and rhetorical violence—and, occasionally, offer outcomes beyond the cycle of brutality.
Racial Violence and Resilience: Questions and Currents in African American Art is not meant to be comprehensive. In a space not much larger than a living room, conversations can start and then head off in many different directions.
The show is anchored by Renée Stout's rusted metal idol, "Ogun." Named for the Yoruba spirit of metalwork, the sculpture recalls the colonial plunder of African figurines and masks that can be found in the anthropological sections of history and art museums. Constructed largely from discarded machine parts and adorned with old portraits of black men, the work connects colonialism to the systemic poverty of blacks in the industrial age. Willie Cole's triptych "Man Spirit Mask," in which the footprint of an iron echoes an African mask, also relates labor to servitude.
While Kara Walker's stunning drypoint and aquatint work, "no world," is a biting indictment of the slave trade in the guise of a maritime seascape, several works by Jacob Lawrence find points of empowerment in work and religion. Walker and Lawrence both use allegorical scenes to make layered statements that carry both a psychological and a social charge.
Other works have more ambiguity. Gertrude Abercrombie's cryptic "Charlie Parker's Favorite Painting" asks for your interpretation. Depicting a lynching tree in a surrealistic landscape, the image is hard to resolve with the title. Barkley Hendricks's portrait "New London Niggah/Big Chuck (Charles Harvey)" could express either placid resignation or exhausted defiance.
Racial Violence and Resilience also includes works by Glenn Ligon, Ellen Gallagher, Gordon Parks, Mose Tolliver, Kehinde Wiley, and others. A related panel sponsored by the Ackland and the Nasher, "Collecting and Presenting Work by Artists of African Descent," will be held at the Nasher on February 11 at 7 p.m. Also visit the Ackland's website for a variety of events associated with Walls of Color.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Mural, Interrupted"