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Art gallery celebrating Black History Month opens on UNC's campus

A student views the art displayed at the Black History Art Gallery Exhibition in the Carolina Union, Friday, Feb. 10, 2023.

As Black History Month continues through the month of February,  students at UNC are celebrating through archival art and poetry.

The grand opening of the Student Life and Leadership’s Black History Month Art Gallery Exhibition was held on Friday in the Carolina Union Art Gallery.

The exhibition came after SLL held a Black History Month Art Contest, which encouraged students to submit pottery, photography, digitals, painted works or poetry for the chance to be featured in the gallery. 

“The reason that we came to the idea of doing an art gallery is that there were so many things that you could include about the history of this University and about students,” Shawn Dawson, the diversity outreach coordinator at the SLL, said. “And there were ways to get interactive features that not only talked about history, but also represented the students today.” 

The exhibition features archival work done by members of the SLL which showcases Black activists, specifically those related to UNC and the greater Chapel Hill-Carrboro community. 

“When we were going through (the archives), we were all looking at each other like ‘I can't believe some of the things that we're reading.’ So, it was just really powerful,” Makenna Thuringer, the communications and marketing graduate coordinator at the SLL, said. 

Some of the archival exhibits feature journal entries by Karen L. Parker— the first undergraduate Black woman to enroll at UNC — and historical representations of the Chapel Hill Nine and the Black Student Movement at UNC. 

Senior Marsha’ll Betts, who attended the exhibition during the grand opening, described how seeing the representation of activists affected her. 

“It's good to know that there was somebody who looked like that wanted me to have a fair chance at education, who wanted me to have a fair chance at every opportunity that everyone else has,” she said. 

Jordan Davis, SLL’s leader development graduate coordinator for co-curricular programs and retreats, said featuring archives in the exhibit played an important role in presenting an accurate image of UNC’s history without "sugar-coating" it. 

Senior Ayanna Simmons, who also attended the grand opening, said the exhibitions’ image of UNC’s history provides great educational value.

“I think it is so beautiful," Simmons said. "I know about some things they put on display, but not everything. So, finding out new information about our history, and people who have advocated for us and have done so much to bring respect to our race so we can have rights and access to certain things, is very powerful." 

Along with archival pieces, current students' work is featured as well.

The winners of the contest were individuals who submitted pieces of poetry. Their work hangs on the wall along with a QR code, which provides the link to an audio of the poems read by the authors themselves. 

Dawson shared his personal goal for the exhibition and why this event was important to him.

“I know what it's like on this campus, especially as someone who is mixed and a part of the LGBTQ+ community. It can sometimes feel hard to feel like you have a space on this campus,” Dawson said. “So, my main hope for this art gallery is that people of color, especially during this month, feel represented by this University." 

Betts said the exhibition is important, especially considering the lack of acknowledgment she feels UNC is giving Black History Month. 

“No one is even realizing or acknowledging that it is Black History Month," Betts said. "So, when I came in and saw the exhibit, it actually made me want to cry because somebody didn’t forget, somebody had it in their heart to do something to show representation."

This is the first time the SLL has hosted the contest and exhibition, but Dawson said it is intended to become an annual event. 

“Seeing this helps me realize that there's still more work to be done, there's still more things that aren’t being acknowledged, that aren't being represented on UNC's campus, despite how much they say they are diverse and they're working towards inclusion,” Betts said. 

The exhibition will remain on display in the Carolina Union Art Gallery until March 8. 

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