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Two shows in Charlotte tear down walls

Speaking truth to power

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Two art exhibits in Charlotte are exploring a few man-made barriers. The artists invite us to ponder the physical and psychological distances we create between each other historically and electively, for sad and shameful reasons, toward comic, unhappy and sometimes deadly ends. The two different shows expose two discrete divides constructed on opposite sides of the globe, both describing barriers as ancient and fresh as tears on the Wailing Wall. The two shows are a stone's throw distance from one another on Seventh Street.

The show called In Mixed Company is a small, curious exhibit at the Levine Museum of the New South. In this cloistered, cozy space, artist Willie Little gazes sideways at the barrier between black and white. Little's mythic wall between the races is built with nettles. Time -- and a willful lack of acknowledgement -- has faded the writing on the wall, but the wall remains. It stings to the touch.

A couple hundred yards down the Seventh Street sidewalk at ImaginOn is Children of Jerusalem Painting Pain, Dreaming Peace, an exhibit of paintings by Israeli and Palestinian children. The walls running between the lives of these children are stone and mortar, blood and bone. This show is an experiment in breaching that wall, a laughable, naïve push against the current -- a few starfish thrown back home, a few children given the opportunity to reclaim the stuff of childhood. These paintings will make no difference at all, except perhaps to these few kids plucked from the ugly pageant in the Middle East, and maybe to the few grown-ups who can see the tonic, inscrutable wisdom of 11-year-olds.

Willie Little wants us to listen in to the conversations we have between ourselves, with our own people, the privileged conversations we share with one another about those other folks across the way. Little talks about his own privileged conversations on the front porch of his childhood rural home near Washington, N.C., and one tale in particular told by an elderly black neighbor, about "the curse" of nappy hair conferred on the Black Man. This show addresses the blessings of that curse.

A small forest of 14 long black poles hang on fish line from the ceiling. The sticks are a thin barrier of fragile fence posts, a divide between my circle and his circle, between my story and his story. On closer inspection, the fence posts are carefully carved walking sticks, primitive scepters, coated with a thin veneer of smooth tar paper and powdered with reflective glass. Cockleburs, prickly peanut weeds resembling tiny headless porcupines, are wrapped, lined or clotted on each walking stick. The spiky embellishments lend a fearsome and majestic presence to each stick. The crown of each piece is fashioned into a halo or horns. Each is an emblem of nobility, and an instrument of either battle or ritual.

Cockleburs curse many pieces in this austere and oddly comforting room. Three mason jars, turned upside down are chock full of cockleburs; one oversized jar, with rusted top, is covered with the spiky little pods. An old tin of Premium Crackers, with the emphasis on the word Crackers, is lined and filled to the top with the nappy nettles.

Willie Little is a master builder of the faux antique object. Like the whispered language of bigotry, Little's reconstructions of bygone artifacts are both timeworn and well preserved. His artifacts are visual souvenirs of intractable memories.

A gilded gold leaf box is lined on the inner walls with confederate 20 dollar bills. Dated advertising hawking oatmeal soap and bellyache tonic decorate the bottom of the box. The advertising illustrates a black couple on a Sunday stroll, man and wife all dandied up in Victorian threads -- top hat, bonnet, parasol and cane. But no, the faces, these are the faces of apes masquerading as civilian gentility. How clever.

The top of the box is open; the underside of the lid caked with glass particles, glistening, inviting and hazardous to the touch. This box is a private conversation, a privileged chortle and poke in the ribs for an inner circle. A cruel and tasteless cut, and reasonably tolerable not so long ago.

Willie Little's open conversation on privileged conversations opens doors to honest conversations. Little speaks truth to power, and invites us to do the same.

How do you span an unbreachable divide? Let the kids do it. Kids have porous filters, little fuel for hatred, and silly putty agendas. Who else could span a 2,000-year shit storm with a rainbow?

Palestinian and Israeli children from East and West Jerusalem were brought together over a three-year period to create works of art illustrating their lives. The workshops were led by Israeli and Palestinian art teachers. The 60 or so paintings are cut into three sections: Conflict, Joint Paintings and Hopes. The kid's titles are often as good as the paintings (sometimes better).

Phase One Paintings: Conflict includes "Bloody Battle," "Country of Conflict," "Shelling" and "Death Glider." Sounds like World Wrestling Federation event promos -- subtle these kids ain't. Guns, soldiers, bombs, explosions, planes, caged beasts and birds, all in raw primary colors, smoke, ruin, chaos.

"War in the City of Peace" is a joint painting by students from Ramat Moriah Community School and Paley Centre for the Arts. A green field bleeds into a red gelatinous sea; a domed mosque in the background; the field of the painting is a wash of muddled colors, with ruined or indistinct objects cluttered and clotted together. The silhouette of a dove is outlined and superimposed over the chaos, obscured by the visible ruin, but visible.

Phase Three Paintings: Hopes includes "Freedom," "Rescue Boat," "Good Hands" and my favorite, "Life in Pink." "Chocolate Bullets" illustrates four American jumbo jets dive-bombing a landscape of giddy children with a barrage of donuts, chocolate drops, cookies, and what appears to be a German chocolate cake. Some children are wiser than others.

The exhibit In Mixed Company will show through May 30 at the Levine Museum of the New South, 200 E. 7th St. For details, call 704-333-1887 or go to www.museumofthenewsouth.org. Children of Jerusalem Painting Pain, Dreaming Peace will be on display through July 15 at ImaginOn, 300 E. 7th St. Call 704-973-2780 or go to www.imaginon.org for more information.

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