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Black in America October 2019, part of author Professor Kiese Laymon's residency on campus

I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background ― Zora Neale Hurston

Themes of racism, black culture, poverty and the American South are highlighted in this focus exhibition of selected artwork from Wake Forest University’s art collection.

This show was organized as a collateral exhibition to Professor Kiese Laymon’s residency on campus in October 2019, which includes discussions about his book, Heavy: An American Memoir. His work centers around themes such as the culture and experience of life in Southern black America, access to education, wealth disparities, and complicated, sometimes violent familial relationships. The artwork in the exhibition encompass these themes, versions of perceptions of black lives, the black experience and life in the American South.

Untitled photo, possibly related: Winston-Salem, North Carolina, 1935, Walker Evans, photograph.

Walker Evans, American (1903-1975)

Untitled photo, possibly related: Winston-Salem, North Carolina, 1935, Walker Evans, photograph.
Show poster in Alabama town, 1936, Walker Evans, photograph.

Walker Evans' documentary-style, iconic photographs of Winston-Salem and the American southeast, distills the essence of life in the region and have become part of our nation’s shared visual history of the Great Depression.

His extensive photographic portfolio depicts daily life in different communities within America during and immediately following the Great Depression. Showcasing themes of abandonment, suffering, class differences, and scenes of everyday life, mainly in the American South, he captures how communities were impacted, and their current situations. More specifically in these prints, one can identify images from many different areas, including Winston Salem, which depicts the living situations of different socioeconomic groups, namely the poorer African American community. Other images show the portrayal of this racial group and their community in ads and other capacities at the time, like simply sitting out on the street and interacting, and an abandoned barber shop, a central point of socializing within the community.

This narrative of Southern life is similar to the messages found within Laymon’s novel, and Evans’ work articulates the American experience in that period, and bringing awareness to it.

© Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

Untitled, 1969, Robert Gwathmey, poster.

Robert Gwathmey, American (1903-1988)

Untitled, 1969, Robert Gwathmey, poster.

Born and raised in the rural south, Robert Gwathmey was a social realist painter recognized for his depictions of rural life in the American south. Born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, Gwathmey is regarded as the first white American artist to produce dignified representations of black Americans through painting. A lifelong social activist, he was a firm believer that artistic expression and social issues could not be separated. Gwathmey was interested in documenting the human condition, primarily as it pertained to the people of his native south. He sought to portray human subjects as he saw them, through observation, without over generalizing or romanticizing. He emphasized color and flattened forms instead of three-dimensional realism. Though most well-known for his iconic realist portraits of black southern agricultural workers, Gwathmey produced portraits of both whites and blacks in urban and rural landscapes, as well as still-life’s.

© Estate of Robert Gwathmey/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Two Market Women, 1962, Claude Howell, oil on canvas.

Claude Howell, American (1915-1997)

Two Market Women, 1962, Claude Howell, oil on canvas.

A Carolina native, Claude Howell has been called ‘Dean of North Carolina painters’ due to his involvement in establishing an art department at UNC-W. His works often capture his surroundings, like that of southern landscapes and life in the South, as depicted in Two Market Women. His focus on Southern life manifests itself in the imagery of the African American women, the bright colors highlight the women, and use of pronounced geometric shapes emphasize the two dimensional qualities of the work. His focus on Southern poverty was also extensive; showing these two figures in the market setting, a place in which they may work, highlights the possible occupations of the women, and their social situations.

copyright retained by the artist or artist representative

Based on a True Story #12: Mass Hypnosis: Rodney King/L.A. Riot, 1992-1993, Carter Kustera, Latex Paint on Canvas

Carter Kustera, Canadian (b. 1962)

Based on a True Story #12: Mass Hypnosis: Rodney King/L.A. Riot, 1992-1993, Carter Kustera, Latex Paint on Canvas

Made just months following the Rodney King verdict, Carter Kustera’s painting of the video footage of targeted police brutality emphasizes the years of racial and economic inequality as well as media manipulation that led to the LA riots.

During the 1980s and 90s, Carter Kustera was making social and political art dealing with topics related to ethnicity, sexuality, race and family. In exploring these issues around identity, Kustera turned to a variety of materials and mediums that would best illustrate these ideas, whether it was found materials, the written word, works on paper, sculpture, performance, or video. In this painting, Kustera appropriated photographic and video images from the news media, and then collaborated with technical experts for the transfer to canvas. He then added his own hand-painted images.

This work is one in a series from that time entitled, “Based on a True Story” in which the artist explored everything from the ordinary to the quirky to the highly charged and confrontational social events as the one depicted here. Kustera created this painting just after a jury found four Los Angeles Police Department officers not guilty in the savage beating of Rodney King. By way of artistic process and subject, this painting is a commentary on both media manipulation and manipulation by the (news) media.

copyright retained by the artist or artist representative

Untitled, 1992, Glenn Ligon, Soft Ground Etching/Aquatine/Spitbite/Sugarlift

Glenn Ligon, American (b. 1960)

Untitled, 1992, Glenn Ligon, Soft Ground Etching/Aquatine/Spitbite/Sugarlift

With his trademark use of language and text in his prints and paintings, Glenn Ligon calls attention to being black in a white America.

Glenn Ligon’s work investigates issues of race and identity by examining the meaning and context of a given passage. In his paintings and prints, he frequently uses a text or other found sources to reveal the ways in which the history of slavery and the civil rights movement inform our understanding of American society. In these prints he stenciled excerpts from Zora Neal Hurston’s essay “How it feels to be Colored,” and from Ralph Ellison’s book Invisible Man. As the text moves down the page it gains power through repetition. At the same time the meaning becomes increasingly ambiguous as the letters are more and more smudged and eventually indecipherable. The black letters blend into the background, making them difficult to read. Ligon says, “The prints play with the notion of becoming ‘colored’ and how that ‘becoming’ obscures meaning (obscures the text) and also creates this beautiful abstract thing.”

copyright retained by the artist or artist representative

Kiese Laymon, the Ottilie Schillig Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Mississippi visited campus for a workshop with students October 28-29, 2019. Laymon also gave a public lecture on October 30th at Porter Byrum Welcome Center. The workshop was sponsored by the Engaged Liberal Arts in the College of Arts & Sciences and the Intercultural Center. Laymon's visit was funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Photograph: Timothy Ivy

"Black in America" was curated by Jennifer Finkel, Curator of the Office of University Art Collections, and Sarah Comegno (’21).