Some good things do come with age, and the exhibit 40 and Counting: Celebrating Forty Years at the Gantt Center Through Art, Culture and Community is proof of that. Though the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture opened in its current Uptown location in 2009 — which is why some folks may be scratching their heads and questioning the math here — it formerly existed in a smaller venue a few blocks away, as the Afro-American Cultural Center, before claiming its spacious and contemporary quarters along museum row, in the Levine Center for the Arts.
The exhibit gathers works from 16 previous exhibits to illuminate the center's rich history. Among that history is an array of diverse artists that have contributed to its success and growth.
Upon entering the gallery and to the left, a cluster of paintings by Tarleton Blackwell draw the gaze. The pieces, taken from his Hog Series, consist of well-dressed swine performing polite activities, like pouring tea at a table. There's also a painting of a wolf in military officer's attire, adorned with medallions. Much of Blackwell's paintings take inspiration from children's books, seen in the way he humanizes the animals and gives them the upper hand in these striking portraits. Vibrant with thick brush strokes, these pieces illustrate a sense of the South and its sometimes confining nature, emphasized by barnyard and pigpen enclosures. The works seem to push the idea that one deemed inferior can rise and claim the status of one's former masters. Having grown up around farms in South Carolina, Blackwell probably witnessed prejudices and discrimination firsthand, so there's a real sense that he wants to give a voice to those who can't speak.
Works by Fahamu Pecou are also featured in the exhibit. A visual artist who uses pop culture, specifically hip-hop, as influence for his works, Pecou paints pieces that resemble magazine covers and flyers. In 2009's "The Code" we see two folks — the male figure is the artist himself — giving each other dap on a glamorous red carpet. Whether or not inspired by the late Norman Rockwell, who painted stylistically similar works (though generally of white rural and suburban subjects), you'll feel a familiar vibe. These works display Pecou's insight into black lives and success.
Another enticing work in the exhibit is Renee Cox's "Baby Back" from her American Family Series. A self-portrait of Cox herself, who is known for posing nude, the piece conveys a sense of independence, femininity and dominance. Cox sits on a yellow loveseat with her back and derriere facing the viewer. Her posture is straight, head turned confidently with dreads that resemble an Egyptian headdress. It's seductive and provocative — red spiked heels and a whip pop after a second glance.
Among other pieces in the exhibit is a series of black-and-white photos by Jim Alexander, highlighting notable musicians. This includes glossy, sharp, action shots of Nancy Wilson, Miles Davis, Atlanta bluesman Frank Edwards and more. Alexander dedicated his life to standing along the sidelines at concerts to capture images of these legends.
Willie Little's "A Door to American Culture" stands as a major focal point of the exhibit. A triptych of large, aged brown doors hang along the wall. They are blackened from burns and bruised from the piercing of nails. The center panel features a woman in a white dress, her expression humble and ghostly. The charcoaled shadows above her make it look as though she's radiating after having been consumed by a flame. Other old knobs, photographs and objects hang along the flanking doors, in a sort of shrine to the past (see Top 10 for a current exhibit of Little's works at New Gallery of Modern Art).
All in all, the range of artwork showcased here is intoxicating — highlighting the achievements, challenges and talents of African-American artists from all over. In 40 and Counting we see dedication and skill from both artists and curators, past and present, but even more so we see the Gantt Center's weighty contribution to culture in the Queen City.