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Ackland Art Museum promotes racial conversation with new exhibition

Courtesy of Emily Bowles, Ackland Director of Communications

Courtesy of Emily Bowles, Ackland Director of Communications

Racial tension is moving away from being the elephant in the room.

For more than a year, the checkered past of the University and the racial issues of the present have been at the forefront of the student body’s collective conscience. Difficult conversations, while intended to heal, have led to disillusionment for many students.

It was in the midst of the messy, fragile and emotionally charged campus conversations on race that the Ackland Art Museum saw an opportunity to leverage art as a medium for asking questions — even those without answers. 

At the request of the museum, John Bowles, associate professor of art history, curated an exhibition from the museum’s permanent collection titled, “Racial Violence and Resilience: Questions and Currents in African American Art.”

The collection includes the work of nine African-American artists in addition to one white artist, who was sympathetic to the oppression and to the history of African-Americans in the United States. Even though much of the work in the exhibition dates back to the early 20th century, Bowles said the work remains relevant to present racial tension. 

“One thing that art can do is that it can demonstrate that there is a history — a long history — of African-American artists thinking about how their making art might respond to U.S. history and current events and current debates,” Bowles said.

The exhibit presents the dilemmas of whether portraying violence repeats or praises the violence and whether radical, violent response — such as that advocated by abolitionist John Brown — is appropriate when confronting racist violence. Rather than providing a solution to these questions, the exhibit showcases work that asks them.

“The artists understand how complex these histories and these debates are, I think,” Bowles said.

Peter Nisbet, chief curator of the Ackland, said the museum has a long history of striving to include African-American artists in the historical narrative it presents through its American folklife collection. 

Recently, the museum has joined many other North Carolina museums in shining a spotlight on how they collect and present the work of African-American artists. Nisbet said the exhibit melds together conversations circulating in the museum world with those of racial tension at the University.

“This is an example of how what the Ackland can contribute, in this case, to the campus-wide conversations that are going on right now about race and inclusion and those kinds of issues,” Nisbet said.

Bowles is scheduled to speak about the exhibition and the questions it addresses today in a lunch seminar. The event generated enormous interest and quickly reached capacity, demonstrating the relevance of the topic, Nisbet argued. The Ackland encourages students to visit the show in the museum’s study gallery, which will remain on display, along with Bowles’ commentary, until Feb. 21.

Miriam Madison, a first-year student studying African American and African Diaspora Studies and sociology, said that when she heard about the lunch and the exhibit that her professor was curating, she became immediately interested.

“I think art allows people to express their reality in ways that aren’t as confrontational as a conversation,” Madison said.

“With a conversation, you’re getting two different points of view that are coming at each other; whereas, with art, you allow people to interpret things for themselves and to also see the reality that the artist is trying depict and that many other people experienced.” 


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