The Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History’s new exhibition, “Aswarm With the Spirits of All Ages Here: Inconceivable Spaces of Slavery and Freedom,” opens Jan. 25 at 7 p.m.
The multi-media presentation by Toni Scott calls visitors to reexamine the stories of enslaved peoples to better understand and comprehend the history of African American presence in America.
“This exhibition is about bringing (past stories) forward and making (them) relevant, saying these stories are not long ago and people are still suffering,” Scott said. “It may not be the slavery that we know, but there are people that are enslaved in other ways. Through DNA, through trauma, through racism, through oppression, and globally it’s still an epidemic.”
The exhibition allows visitors to step inside what life may have been like for slaves by way of interactive art pieces and slave narratives from the Library of Congress.
“We want them to encourage our visitors to examine and reexamine the human cost of American slavery,” said Stephanie Cobert, project coordinator for the Stone Center. “This exhibition helps to do that by forming an emotional connection through art.”
The title of the exhibition, “Aswarm With the Spirits of All Ages Here,” comes from a memoir authored by UNC professor Bland Simpson. The memoir is focused on the Great Dismal Swamp, an area of land located on the North Carolina and Virginia boarder. The swamp was home to runaway slaves fleeing by way of the underground railway.
“There are key words in the title of it that immediately spoke to me,” Scott said. “The words, 'Spirits of all ages here formed' — we’re still in the midst and the essence of our ancestors and ancestry doesn’t die. Every breath that we breathe is infused by someone who preceded us. These spirits do not go away.”
Scott’s ability to capture the lives and the struggles of the enslaved allows for visitors to reexamine and ponder the past.
“Relative to this particular artist’s exhibit, the runaway slaves — they don’t live anymore. Nobody from the 19th century does,” Simpson said. “But with imagination one can conjure them up and imagination is fed by information.”
The exhibit is a gateway to understanding and comprehending the past.
“Part of the great purpose of art of any sort is to make us think, make us wonder," Simpson said. "And if you start to think about who has lived in this place and it’s not just university people. If you back up into the swirl of simultaneity there have been people living here for 10 to 12 thousand years. I think it will be a delightful exhibit to behold. I’m very pleased and honored to have a tie to it.”
The exhibition focuses on humanity and bringing light to the lives of those whose stories were once untold.
“I want people to take away an understanding of compassion and empathy of what people suffered,” Scott said. “I want descendants of slaves like myself to feel empowered that, ‘Look what we faced and look what we survived.’"
Scott said those whose ancestors have survived the incomparable journey from Africa to America on slave ships can feel strength in the fact that their stories are here to be heard at the Stone Center
“These were individual human beings with feelings who experienced horror, yet survived,” she said. “I think that’s a really relevant space to build empathy, and that’s really the heart and soul besides educating. It’s for people to feel something and to walk in their shoes for half a second.”
The exhibition will be open to the public until April 30.
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