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New Ackland exhibit to explore art from the American South

university-unsettled-things-ackland-preview Large.jpeg

Lonnie Holley, American, born 1950, What Was Beyond Us (The Ocean of Our Thoughts), 2019, globe and stand, model ships, rocks, earth, moss, and cast iron pot, 40 1/2 x 19 in. (102.9 x 48.3 cm). Ackland Art Museum, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Promised gift of John A. Powell, '77, L2020.10.1a-o. © 2022 Lonnie Holley / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Photo Courtesy of Ackland Art Museum.

Southern art will soon have a new platform on campus.

Starting this Friday, visitors attending the Ackland Art Museum can view the new exhibit “Unsettled Things: Art from an African American South.”

“You don’t have to go to New York, L.A. or Chicago to see great art that’s really happening everywhere,” said Lauren Turner, Ackland’s associate curator for contemporary art and special projects.

In partnership with the International African American Museum in Charleston, the exhibit was developed to display the artwork of 28 southern artists from multiple decades and connect it to mainstream movements in contemporary art. 

The vernacular art pieces, most of which come from Ackland’s permanent collection, reflect the history of the South, Turner said.

"We've built up this really strong collection of art by artists who historically have been described as folk artists or vernacular artists or outsider artists, and a lot of those terms can be very othering," she said. 

One of the goals of the exhibit is to allow people to have a close look at art and consider how the artist crafted them in a particular time and place, Allison Portnow Lathrop, Ackland’s head of public programs, said.

“Emphasizing the voice of the artist is really important to what we do at the Ackland,” she said.

Turner said emphasizing the voices of these specific artists has been a project in the works for a decade at the Ackland.

When putting the exhibit together, she said the curators used different mediums of art to allow viewers to connect with and have furthers conversations about the its meaning and purpose.

“Unsettled Things: Art from an African American South" was inspired by the continuous work necessary to make art inclusive. This change cannot be achieved with one exhibit, Bernie Herman, guest curator of the exhibit and UNC professor of art history said.

“That change is something that is long-term and hard-fought,” he added.

The exhibit is based on three themes: life, spirit and matter. The life of the art refers to considering the social context the artist was living in when they created their product. The spirit of the art captures the act of creation and “giving life” to the piece. The matter of art considers individual artist's materials that are influenced by their diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, Turner said. 

Regardless of materials, there is a lot of intuition that goes into these works of art, Turner said. 

For example, artist Lonnie Holley used a fan belt as a critical piece in his sculpture “Balancing the Rock” in the collection to demonstrate the physical abuse he faced in school during his youth. 

Lathrop noted that visiting an exhibit like this can be an intimate experience for visitors that can change the way one views art.

Turner said the project is the culmination of the Museum’s relationship with the late collector William Arnett, who donated part of his collection to the Ackland in 2017.

“We sort of see it as a reflection of what we’ve been doing, but also a call to arms for what can still be done,” Turner said. 

Arnett created the Souls Grown Deep Foundation in 2010, an organization that works to protect art and advocates for the inclusion of Black artists in the South. The Ackland was selected as the foundation's first university art museum beneficiary, which allowed them access to many pieces that are now seen in the upcoming collection. 

Along with art pieces that are now housed in the Ackland, around 13,000 archive items from the foundation are also available to students at Wilson Library. 

“I think it’s an excellent demonstration of the networks that the University of North Carolina has and that we’re always putting into play to make sure that students have the best educational experience possible,” Turner said.

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In July, the exhibit will close and be moved to the International African American Museum, where it will open as a special exhibition. 

@eileenfoster_

university@dailytarheel.com