Many Charlotteans are familiar with British general Charles Cornwallis’s famous remarks during the Revolutionary War in 1780, in which he called our city “a hornet’s nest of rebellion.” The statement has never been conclusively confirmed, but the metaphor stuck regardless, inspiring the name of a northwest Charlotte park and our NBA team, among many other things.
Local artist Janelle Dunlap, however, tends to view the city as more of a beehive than a hornet’s nest.
When Dunlap thinks about her role in Charlotte’s art scene, she looks back on her past job as a beekeeper here.
“In each hive there are bees that forage. They’re the ones that go out, they take all the risk, they pollinate the plants and the flowers, and they bring back that pollen — that resource — to the hive for the nourishment and development and sustainability of the entire hive,” Dunlap told Queen City Nerve. “I like to think that that practice is bleeding over into my organizational practice; how I navigate systems in order to bring resources back to my hive.”
In her latest role with the McColl Center for Art + Innovation, that meant helping to create a residency that would center on Charlotte artists who work in social practice art, a term that refers to artwork that uses social engagement as a primary medium. At a recent artist talk at McColl, Dunlap introduced the five artists of the newly created Resident Residency, all of whom will premiere new work from the residency at an opening reception titled Tarmac, which will take place on Jan. 10.
The artists were selected by a panel that included McColl staff and current and former artists-in-residence, as well as including feedback from other local institutions involved with the EmcArts New Pathways program, which helped fund the residency. That program includes organizations such as Charlotte Symphony, Blumenthal Arts and the Mint Museum.
Similar to the forager bee, Dunlap’s role was to be the outsider looking in, bringing feedback to the museum from out in the community and helping to shape how this residency could be different from others that McColl has hosted in its 20-year history as a residency program for artists from Charlotte and around the world.
Dunlap met with McColl president and CEO Alli Celebron-Brown many times over six months to take what she called “a macroscopic look” at the McColl Center’s residency programs, discussing how people from the community view the McColl Center and what could be done to engage more on a local level.
Over that time, Dunlap and other panelists decided to highlight social practice artists within Charlotte. As Dunlap pointed out at the artist discussion, however, the tendency to label artists who engage in that work as activists can sometimes hurt the message and perpetuate mislabeling of both artists and activists. Therefore, one goal of the new residency is to address that dynamic.
“I was thinking back to the Keith Lamont Scott, Justin Carr shootings, and how violently the city responded against protesters, and not just with force, but also with a dialogue that was not very democratic,” Dunlap said, expanding on her point after the artist talk. “We took the concept of protesting and we turned it into riots, and then from riots, we had to call it an ‘uprising,’ and I was like, ‘It was protesting.’ The act of protest is associated with activism, so if we can start to think about art as another form of protest, but not label the artists as activists, maybe that’s a way of protecting the actual protests.”
The first Resident Residency, the opening reception for which will take place at McColl on Jan. 10, will include new works from mixed-media artists Dammit Wesley, MyLoan Dinh and Helms Jarrell, painter HNin Nie and filmmaker Marlon Morrison. The artists will explore themes including racism, gun violence, sex trafficking and immigration, with overlapping themes like displacement running like threads through some of the projects.
For example, Nie and Dammit Wesley are collaborating on a work called Post-Racial Feels that brings Nie’s Negative Nancy character into Dammit Wesley’s world of racial iconography and branding, including the minstrel character Sambo that he used in his recent Exciting Times series.
“[Negative Nancy] is a self-portrait of me, and it is a very fantasy world that Nancy is in, but since she’s me, she is an Asian woman and it is me creating from my own experiences as an Asian woman,” Nie explained. “So when Wesley approached me with the idea that we do a show together, we came up with the idea of an amusement park, the amusement park being America, and two characters that we created being thrown into an America that wasn’t made for us.”
For Wesley, the collaboration was a natural fit, as it allows the two artists to explore their respective experiences for similarities and differences in how they move in an arts scene that is most often lead and curated by white people.
“Me and HNin had several conversations about the idea of African-Americans being like the model deviants and Asian people being the model citizens for a society when it comes to different ethnic groups and races and how those two stereotypes stunted our growth, and they’re both extremely negative,” Wesley said. “Even the idea of being like the model citizen puts an unreasonable amount of pressure and stereotypes on them that don’t exist. So just being a black man, being connected with people of color, both of us in the arts in Charlotte, [the scene is] very small for us, there’s not a lot of wiggle room.”
Dinh will also explore racial aspects of immigration and displacement, as she has in the past, with her new work for McColl focusing specifically on how gun violence plays into those themes.
Dinh said she was shocked to learn that, as Mexico struggles with escalating gun violence within its own borders, which serves as a motivating factor for much of the immigration that’s coming into America, more than 70% of the guns confiscated from gangs and cartels inside the country can be traced back to America.
Dinh’s past work has included pieces made with discarded quilts, which she said are symbolic in that they were once handmade with love and used for warmth but have since been thrown out or given away. In one quilt piece that she called “Courage,” the image of a family fleeing that’s known to represent that “Refugees are welcome” is hand-embroidered into a discarded quilt.
“It takes a lot of courage to leave everything you know behind — your family, friends, your home, your belongings — to seek safety,” she said. “And it also takes courage for the host country to accept them, so it goes both ways.”
Though Dinh will be creating new work for the residency, her quilt pieces are indicative of a theme that runs through much of the work of the resident artists. “What I see at the intersection of all of our work is that we’re trying to address how we value each other, how society values us,” Dinh said at the artist talk. “My work is about addressing how we value people who are not like us — the ‘others,’ who come from other countries, because of my own experience of being an immigrant myself and how oftentimes immigrants are seen as disposable.”
In her Reliquary series, which she’ll show for the first time at the Jan. 10 reception, Jarrell also explores themes around people who are often thought of as disposable: those suffering displacement in Enderly Park, where she lives.
In one installation, titled “Reliquary: Evicted 3115 Morson Street Psalm 51: 10 & 1,” Jarrell included a sink taken from the front yard of a home that was being renovated to be flipped in her neighborhood. Sinks have come to symbolize displacement to Jarrell, who often sees them in the yards of Enderly Park homes from which people have recently been evicted. The piece is rounded out by other discarded property that the evicted residents left in their yard to be thrown away, including a mirror, a collection of church music and a dove created out of discarded Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. posters.
At the artist talk, Jarrell was asked about how she addresses her own complicity or participation in oppressive systems as a white woman whose work as an artist and co-founder of the nonprofit Q.C. Family Tree is focused on gentrification and displacement.
“All of American space is white space, and we’re not only talking about interpersonal relationships, we’re also talking about systems: the systems of governance, the systems of positioning policy, who owns land … all these things are not interpersonal relationships, they’re bigger than that,” Jarrell said. “And so, in a gentrifying neighborhood … systems were put into place to keep folks from being able to own property, and also systems were put into place for people to be displaced to the current divested brown neighborhoods, and now systems are being put into place to displace those people even further outside the center of the city.
“Those systems were put into place by white folk, and clearly I’m white, so my work is to try to dismantle that within my interpersonal relationships. But that’s not enough for me, so to also try to figure out how to dismantle those systems of oppression within the ways in which I lead my organization, the ways in which I’m thinking about the systems that I have access to and power within and privilege within,” she continued.
Morrison, who makes fictional films with area youth about real issues ranging from gang violence to homophobia to depression, will be focusing his residency on another group of people who may be better described as forgotten than disposable. Inspired by recent in-depth conversations with Tammy Harris of Charlotte-based anti-human-trafficking organization The Ursus Institute, Morrison wanted to confront the oft-ignored issue of sex trafficking in a city that is seen as an “artery” for the crime.
According to another Charlotte organization called Lily Pad Haven, it’s estimated that 1,700 girls are trafficked in North Carolina each year, with Charlotte being the top location for it in the state.
In one clip from Morrison’s new film, a young woman walks by multiple missing posters depicting her peers, but doesn’t notice them, giving the viewer that feeling that’s familiar in the other residents’ work: that the girls on the poster are disposable. In the scene, the young woman is distracted by what’s playing on her headphones, symbolizing most people’s unwillingness to have important conversations about sex trafficking in Charlotte the way they do about affordable housing and other issues.
“I don’t want people to see it as an isolated incident, like this is only happening on the west side,” Morrison said, “because this could be happening in Ballantyne. This could be happening in Myers Park. My thing is to make people aware.”
Morrison’s topic, like all of those being addressed by the Resident residents, is a heavy one; there’s a reason many folks aren’t comfortable having the important discussions about it.
That’s why Morrison hopes to reach more people with his fictional, dramatic films, rather than a documentary that might turn people off with its depressing subject matter and overwhelming stats.
It is perhaps the most important part of each of the resident’s work; making difficult discussions easier to swallow.
As Dammit Wesley pointed out, it is the job of the social practice artist — although Wesley himself is not a fan of the term — to make heavy subjects more palatable.
“A lot of times when you’re talking about very heavy, weighted subjects — things that deal with sex trafficking, racism, immigration — that’s heavy subject matter to gestate and deal with, and a lot of times things are easier if you’re able to slide in subliminal messages, or if you’re trying to code your work in ways that are a little more subtle,” Wesley said. “We as people are a little more receptive to things that aren’t as direct, because truth hurts. A lot of us don’t have the ego necessary to gestate and deal with the idea that, ‘I could be wrong, my actions could be problematic,’ so using art as a vehicle to introduce heavy topics, not necessarily in lighter ways, but ways that are a little more fun to dissect, it’s just easier to talk about.”
These artists have already done that work for us, now let’s talk about it.