Before MasterClass started catering to college students, there was the Hanes Visiting Artist Lecture Series. Every year, the UNC Art Department invites notable artists to talk about their work and offer critiques to students in the Master of Fine Arts program.
All lectures are free, virtual and open to the public. The 2020-21 series kicked off virtually on Thursday.
Visiting artists Carmen Neely and Antoine Williams arrived on the screen, eager to showcase their work. This included Neely’s abstract piece, “In an Alternate Reality,” a tangle of pastel oil paint with a faux flower crown pinned to the canvas, and Williams’ black ink on vellum piece, “A Moment of Rest While Convincing Monsters that I Am Human,” in which a figure, weighed down by a pile of clothing and kicking legs, kneels for a moment.
People tuned in to hear Neely and Williams present their work, discuss each other’s artistic practices and answer questions. The conversation provided insight into the artists’ respective processes and the role of their Black identities in their work.
“Amidst the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, it felt critical and productive to invite these two successful artists to share their practice of ‘taking up space, building narrative through abstraction and representation, afropessimism and afrofuturism,’” elin o’Hara slavick, co-host of the event and a UNC art department professor, said in an email.
Neely and Williams are both members of N.C. Black Artists for Liberation, a collective of Black artists and arts workers committed to building an equitable arts and cultural sector.
“Black artists have been continuously excluded from the canon, been wrongly categorized and historically disregarded,” the collective’s website said.
Neely, whose work combines abstract painting and found objects, noted that women of color who have been doing abstract art for years are only just starting to be critically recognized.
“People haven’t been willing participants to engage in depth in the work (of these WOC),” Neely said. “Their creations are alive, and the materials deserve to be read into and have life breathed into them.”
For Neely, abstraction is a tool to document her experiences and identity as a woman of color. Navigating race, gender and sexuality in a body that is constantly politicized leads to feelings of fragmentation, she said.
“It can feel instinctive, and like a necessary survival tool, to need to document your own experience,” Neely said.
Williams, a UNC Master of Fine Arts graduate, also documents his experiences in his work. His piece, “Moment of Rest While Convincing Monsters That I Am Human,” was created in the wake of the protests surrounding the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
“I just got really fatigued seeing this play out over and over. There are protests in every major city around the world asking for the bare minimum,” Williams said. “This figure is taking a rest, is reclaiming their humanity, which I think for Black people is a really radical act.”
The next Hanes Visiting Artist Lecture will be on Oct. 8, featuring Lauren Frances Adams and Zoë Charlton.
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