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The Voice of the Black Community

Arts and Entertainment

Mint Museum exhibition reflects on history and social issues
'Silent Streets' highlights local art
Published Monday, April 26, 2021 9:00 pm
by Ashley Mahoney

Antoine Williams' "What Happens when a Tool Talks Back," is part of the Silent Streets: Art in the Time of Pandemic exhibit at the Mint Museum Uptown.

“Silent Streets: Art in the Time of Pandemic” responds to art created at the height of the pandemic.

Greensboro-based artist Antoine Williams and Durham-based artist Stacy Lynn Waddell are two of three commissioned artists featured in the Mint Museum’s latest exhibit, which is on view at the Uptown location. Fellow commissioned artist is Amy Bagwell of Charlotte. Other local artists included in the exhibit include Raymond Grubb and filmmakers Ben Gellar and Matthew Steele.

“If you think back to the beginning of the pandemic, we really did not know what to expect,” Williams said. “Having all of that other stuff taken care of it was like, ‘I can now experience what is going on and then reflect and make something.’ That gave me time to do that.  It was not like, ‘let me just start making something,’ it was going through the day-to-day of being in the pandemic and then all the other stuff that took place that year. It gave me time to reflect and then the work came out of that.”

Williams explores existing between pain and joy as a Black man in America in “What Happens When a Tool Talks Back,” which deviates from his usual collage work. Then he transitioned to working with paint in a way that was new to him. He made flat acrylic skin paintings that were part of a series titled “Portrait of a Super-predator.” “Silent Streets” allowed him to continue to explore that material and process, making them more sculptural.

“Whether it is the abstract work or the figurative work, it is addressing issues of how Black and brown bodies exist specifically in this time and in this country,” Mint chief curator Jen Sudul Edwards said. “He is very inspired and interested in Afro-futurism, so this idea of dealing with these immediate, urgent social issues in some sort of sci-fi narrative surreal way to make those experiences kind of cushioned by the fantastical elements, but also more powerful in more poignant in that they allow you to push ideas into realms that are fantastic that aren’t tied to reality.”

He used the commission to explore Congolese power figures by covering plaster with acrylic skins and embedding nails into the sculptures. Traditionally, a piece of metal, such as a nail, hammered in to wooden figures to signify a wrong or a transgression. Williams utilized nails to symbolize the transfer of broken promises from the person to the object.

Rust occurs naturally and symbolizes time passing. Both elements intrigued Williams, but he wanted to manipulate and explore it as a painting tool. He would rust the metal, soak it up as it dripped off and then use it to do a wash over the painting.

“I love how they work with the nails and the metal into the wood,” Williams said. “I wanted to do something similar, so I began experimenting with that. I began working with nails, but also with rust, and using the rust itself almost as paint. This was an opportunity for me explore with materials and process and see what could come of it.”

Waddell, a mixed media artist, brings a sense of history through three flags, which are red, white and blue, featured in the exhibit. She uses textiles to explore themes of representation and inclusion in symbols of power, collaborating with North Carolina quilter Ginny Robinson to create the flags.

Waddell’s lengthy titles are designed to evoke a sentiment that is not merely held in a title. Each flag is dedicated to a Black woman or a group of Black women. She created a red flag for her maternal grandmother, Anliza Massenburg, which honors her legacy through the use of heirloom fabrics. Waddell spent a year as caregiver to her grandparents, during which time she had the opportunity to engross herself in family history.

“Having an opportunity to take a deep dive into all of the things that connect me to my grandmother, this sense of place, loving the space of home, being very much someone who cares about the domestic—I mean I am a contemporary woman, but I care about a lot of things that relate to the domestic sphere,” Waddell said. “How we live [and] where we live, all of those things have meaning for me, because I grew up listening to these incredible stories from my mom and her siblings and my grandparents of how they grew up and what it meant to gather together on Sundays after church for dinner.”

The flag is ultimately a monument to her grandmother titled “For Anliza Massenburg Gill, my maternal grandmother born to Zollie Coffey and Martha Mitchell Massenburg on July 5, 1918 in Franklin County, North Carolina; The seventh of 14 children; four sons and ten daughters; who married the love of her life Otis Gill on December 25, 1941 and remained married for sixty-nine years building a beautiful and enduring legacy steeped in faith, family and community that was passed down to their 7 children, 11 grandchildren, 9 great grandchildren and 1 great great grandchild; who taught us by her daily example that whenever hearts are happy, it’s a simple thing to do, to see some other sadder hearts, and make them happy too, the joy that spreads with others, the joy that multiples, makes someone else happy, on the other side).”

The center flag is made of denim, a fabric often associated with sharecropper and farmer clothing. Waddell said she her research led to the discovery of the classism and racism connected to the fabric. It is titled: “For the young, Black women of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee founded in April 1960 at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina who challenged and abandoned politics of respectability in favor of a strategy that allowed for a radical reimagining of freedom and show of solidarity by adopting the uniform of the Black farmer and wage laborer as they marked as they marched and organized to destabilize and dismantle Jim Crow.” The flag consists of reclaimed Con Mills White Oak denim with canvas and mental grommets.

“There is a conversation about hierarchy that is attached to denim, but it also became the fabric of resistance and the fabric of civil disobedience,” Waddell said.

She dedicated this flag to the women of Shaw University’s Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which was founded on April 17, 1960. Both of Waddell’s parents graduated Shaw.

“That university has a real strong tie in my family at-large,” Waddell said.

Members of SNCC would wear denim to show solidarity with the everyday Black man and woman who wanted to earn a proper wage, vote and other civil rights.

“It is interesting to read the research about young women having to think about dress and their appearance,” Waddell said. “Donning a jean skirt at that particular thing was not a usual thing. It was a way of crossing a kind of line and deciding just like when the 1970s came that going natural and wearing [your hair in] an afro, it was a similar kind of decision about resisting a status quo that mainly was in many ways hoisted upon you. Deciding about your own personhood and having the right to assert your own self-image.”  

The final flag is titled “For Araminta Ross, now Harriet Tubman, our Moses, who first chose freedom for herself then led many out from bondage as a conductor on the Underground Railroad never losing a passenger while carrying a pistol, singing songs of liberation and avoiding those that would call for her death; thirty-four years after the Emancipation Proclamation, and a life of faith and tireless service she accepted gifts of adoration from Queen Victoria the granddaughter of Queen Sophia Charlotte, Great Britain’s first biracial royal of African and German descent and namesake of the largest city in North Carolina.” It consists of 19th and 20th century lace, silk and linen deaccessioned from the Mint Museum, with canvas and metal grommets.

Separately, the flags encompass different histories. Yet together they raise the questions surrounding Waddell’s personal history, as well as the nation’s social and political history, bringing a personal approach to her interest in monuments. She knew she wanted to create a red, white and blue color-sphere. She wanted to challenge create monuments for “Silent Streets” that made people question what they know and understand about monuments, including the U.S. flag.

“Who gets to build the monuments?” Waddell asked. “Who decides what is to be revered?”


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