Provocative Charleston artist unveils UNC mural that features state's black figures
by Adam Parker
The Post and Courier
Sunday - August 15, 2010
Local artist Colin Quashie embraced the opportunity to set the record straight. A self-proclaimed provocateur and social critic, he is the painter the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill's School of Government turned to when it needed to solve a festering problem. The school claimed to represent all the citizens of the state, but its series of historical murals commissioned in 1954 became noteworthy for what it was missing: black people.
The remedy? A new commission for the renovated Knapp-Sanders Building.
And last month, Quashie unveiled his 5-foot-high, 50-foot-long mural called "Service," the first milestone of the Missing History project, which was mounted in a long hallway opposite the school's cafeteria.
The mural is unlike much of the artist's work that came before it and could be a watershed moment for an artist who has cultivated a reputation for challenging conventions and stereotypes, his colleagues said.
Ann Simpson, associate dean for development at the North Carolina school, said the idea for new artwork took hold in the late 1990s, when the renovation project got under way.
The series of 14 murals painted by Frances Vandeveer Kughler failed to include the historical contributions of minority populations in the state.
"Over time, this became controversial, both internally and outside the school," Simpson said.
By 2007, school officials decided to commission two artists to paint murals depicting black and Native American history.
Quashie, his reputation preceding him, made the short list.
"His past work created quite a bit of discussion," Simpson said. But long discussions with the controversial artist put the selection committee at ease.
Money was raised in a capital campaign, Simpson said, but the Great Recession left the project in limbo. That's when the Local Government Federal Credit Union and its president, Maurice Smith, came to the rescue, ponying up the $50,000 needed to fund Quashie's part of the project.
The concept for the mural was Quashie's. It was the Greensboro Four, students at North Carolina A&T College, who on Feb. 1, 1960, triggered a movement of nonviolent civil resistance to institutionalized segregation when they sat down at the Woolworth counter. It seemed only fitting to base the painting on the idea of "service."
In the picture, the four students -- Joseph McNeill, David Richmond, Jibreel Khazan (formerly Ezell Blair Jr.) and Franklin McCain -- are dressed as chefs and stand in front of a long, well-populated lunch counter, which is divided into eight sections according to historical theme. The counter is a gathering place, Quashie explained. The Greensboro Four, who in 1960 demanded lunch service, were serving a much greater cause, the cause of an entire country.
Quashie portrays them "serving" history to the onlooker. The primary figures in the mural number 29 and include a slave couple, prominent educators, activists, businessmen, lawyers, writers and community leaders. Information about each person and scene is available by the mural and on a special project website.
The figures and details were painted from photographs, he said. He went to a local Waffle House to record images of eggs, soup, salad, crumbs on the plate, drinks, fruit and emptied half-and-half containers.
The painting took six and a half months to finish and involved extensive research, Quashie said.
He said he learned about the deeds, large and small, of many citizens fighting for a better world.
"You live with them so long they become part of you," he said. "They come alive."
Exchange of ideas
Quashie's previous work employs the "pop art" style made famous by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, except it is imbued with overt social criticism.
There is the work titled "Black People Love Pork Because Africa is Shaped Like a Pork Chop," a stylized package of three pork chops under plastic wrap.
Or the series called "Black American Gothic Series," consisting of boxes labeled "Aunt Jemima" (which portrays Oprah Winfrey), "Uncle Ben" (Colin Powell) and "Cream of Wheaty" (Tiger Woods).
A billboard image he made in the late 1990s depicts a pixilated Martin Luther King Jr. with a milk mustache. The work is called "Got MLK?"
One of his most controversial paintings is an 80-by-63-inch canvas called "Looked Away ... Dixieland (Strom's Song)" which shows the face of Strom Thurmond superimposed with an image of the Confederate flag and two black men hanging from ropes. Below is assembled prominent people of South Carolina, including one black man, who supported flying of the flag over the state Capitol.
When the work was included in a 1994 show arranged by the S.C. Arts Commission and hosted by the College of Charleston's Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, it nearly cost Halsey Director Mark Sloan his job.
It was not the first time, nor the last, that Quashie's art prompted a dispute.
Two years later, an exhibit for the 1996 MOJA Festival and meant to be displayed on the ground floor of the Dock Street Theatre prompted a stir among organizers. They first demanded the show come down but then compromised by moving it to an upstairs room at the last moment, Quashie said.
In 2007, the show "Dialogues from the Diaspora" at the City Gallery at Waterfront Park included the most controversial of the MOJA works, a silkscreen called "The Black-American Dream."
It featured a long string of black-on-black text expressing dozens of negative stereotypes about black people: "Black is riots," "Black is lazy," "Black is pawn shops." Overlaid on these statements was the white-lettered sentence, "I want to be like the White Man."
What is one viewer's thoughtful provocation is another's insufferable controversy.
"The same piece censored at the Dock Street went up and nobody complained about it," Quashie said.
He was born in London in 1963 and lived in the West Indies until his family relocated to Florida when he was 6. After high school and a stint at the University of Florida, Quashie became a submarine sonarman in the Navy before turning his attention to art.
He supports himself and funds his artwork by writing for television, including MADtv.
Sloan called him "an equal-opportunity critic" with "fine-tuned antenna," a provocateur willing to pose questions and challenge both the white and black communities.
"He throws a Molotov cocktail into the room, but he stays there to watch the interaction," Sloan said. "I think he likes the heat, but he's going for the light."
Quashie's message is not subtle, but the way it's produced artistically is a skillful example of how ideas are rendered visually, Sloan said. The images, clearly conceived before brush touches canvas, are manifestations of those ideas.
"He's a conceptual artist, that's how I see him," Sloan said.
Juan Logan, professor of art at UNC-Chapel Hill, was an early advocate of Quashie's. The two artists met about 15 years ago in Charleston. They explore similar issues in their work, though in different ways, Logan said.
When Logan learned of the Missing History project, he put Quashie's name in the hat immediately.
"He's very smart. I felt he could take this on and produce something really wonderful," Logan said.
When UNC-Chapel Hill's School of Government failed to fund the project, the board of directors of the Local Government Federal Credit Union decided it was too important to ignore, Simpson said.
On July 26 the mural was mounted, 50 years after the Woolworth lunch counter was desegregated.
"It's really been a terrifically satisfying response in all respects," Simpson said.
Almost everyone who comes into the building for a course visits the cafeteria, so almost everyone notices the mural, and many stop to scrutinize it, read the available literature and discuss the art, she said.
"It's doing the job it was meant to do," Simpson said.
Risk of art
When the work "Looked Away ... Dixieland (Strom's Song)" by Colin Quashie was included in a 1994 show arranged by the S.C. Arts Commission and hosted by the College of Charleston's Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, it nearly cost Halsey Director Mark Sloan his job.
A sitting legislator was on campus for a meeting, learned of the painting, which included him among the figures depicted, and demanded that then-President Alex Sanders fire the person responsible, according to Sloan. This was slander, insubordination, the legislator argued. These were people of good standing in the state.
After considering the matter and talking with Sloan while the man awaited action, Sanders defended the decision to display the painting.
"A college campus is a place for the free and open exchange of ideas," Sanders told the legislator, according to Sloan, who had been listening to the conversation through Sanders' speaker phone.
"If we can't discuss these issues here, where can they be discussed? I suggest Mr. Sloan and I wrap ourselves in the cloak of the First Amendment and walk down the aisle of academic freedom."
Behind the gathering of people at the lunch counter, outside the diner's windows, Colin Quashie has painted eight scenes depicting people, places and events of consequence to North Carolina:
--Princeville, formerly the Freedom Hill community built by freed slaves, and the oldest incorporated municipality started by blacks in America.
--The Pea Island Lifesavers, an all-black crew on the Outer Banks.
--The Menhaden Fishing Fleet and Chanteymen who sang call-and-response work songs to pace their labor.
--Parrish Street in Durham, which at the beginning of the 20th century was a hub of commerce called "Black Wall Street".
--Integration of the Charlotte schools in 1957 during which many whites objected by refusing to permit their children to ride the bus with blacks.
--The 27th regiment of U.S. Colored Troops which played a prominent role in the February 1865 capture of Fort Fisher.
--Somerset Place Plantation, the state's third largest by 1860 and where more than 3,000 slave descendants gathered for a reunion in 1986.
--And Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy, who came to Greensboro two weeks after the sit-ins started to lend their support.
To read more about the project at UNC-Chapel Hill, go to www.sog.unc.edu/about/service/media/index.php.
More from UNC Press about the mural: www.uncpressblog.com.
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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