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Three Talking Walls Artists Discuss New Murals in Charlotte

murals in Charlotte
This portrait in NoDa is the first Neka King mural in Charlotte. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

In late October, Talking Walls Mural Fest mobilized eight artists to create new public murals in Charlotte. The goal of Talking Walls, now in its fourth year, is to “champion the diversity and vibrancy of our city through mural arts,” and while this year’s fest was tampered down a bit by the Delta variant, it stuck to the Talking Walls Mural Fest script in that it highlighted six local muralists while also giving room to one regional and one international muralist.

In the lead-up to this year’s Talking Walls, Queen City Nerve editor Ryan Pitkin spoke to new co-chair Carla Aaron-Lopez about her vision for the event, and after the paint dried, I connected with three artists — Garrison Gist and Naji AlAli of Charlotte as well as Neka King of Atlanta — to learn more about their Talking Walls work, their respective art practices and their views on the local scene.

Naji AlAli, 1100 Metropolitan Ave.

Naji AlAli has had a busy year. The artist — who is Palestinian, was raised in Qatar, spent time living in Jordan, and moved to Charlotte in 2017 — spent the summer creating new murals in Jordan before curating Out of Place, a group exhibition at Goodyear Arts in August.

For his mural at Metropolitan Charlotte, AlAli painted two segments of a wall separated by the space of a window. Each segment features one of his characters from his Lemonback world, an imaginative world that AlAli has been developing for years and includes yellow figures with lemon heads. His use of lemons is a reference to his mother’s hometown, Jaffa, a city in Palestine famous for its citrus.

“Lemonback is this fictional world that I created, not necessarily the perfect world in my eyes, but a place [that] reflects what I see around this world of ours, AlAli told me. “I wanted to give an abstract reflection of what I’m experiencing. So, there’s a love story going on in my life that I’d like to share with people [and] I [use] lemon characters to reflect that. I use symbols like birds and my little characters and snakes to represent those little details without me actually having to showcase it directly.”

AlAli says the space between walls represents the distance between two refugees. On the left: a figure wearing a patterned tunic and headscarf holds a white flower delicately. She looks to the wall next to her where another figure in a brown button-up, with a keffiyeh draped over shoulder and a white flower in his pocket, returns her gaze.

murals in Charlotte
One of two connected murals by at Metropolitan Charlotte. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

During his return to Jordan over the summer, AlAli made new relationships with artists working there, including Sara Allan, Seddeq Abu Ghoush, and Ahmad Turki, who he says inspired him daily.

“They pushed me all the time to do more work that is connected to my culture and roots. When I went back [to Jordan], they always told me, ‘The good thing about your work in the States is that it still reflects your emotions here,’” he recalled. “Wherever I am in the world, I feel like it’s important that I have these friends telling me either, ‘Yeah, keep doing what you’re doing,’ or, ‘Hey, bro, get back to your roots, get back to your culture. Keep doing Arabic designs, keep doing things about Palestine, things about who you are, what you stand for, and who you stand for.’

murals in Charlotte
One of two new murals by Naji AlAli at Metropolitan Charlotte. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

“As a Palestinian, we have certain symbols in our culture that reflect our history or freedom. I use the scarf and the birds because in Lemonback’s world Palestine is free,” he continued. “It’s not necessarily occupied, so you wouldn’t see a lot of border walls in my paintings or those kinds of things that reflect the occupation. But I do try my best to reflect the beautiful parts of my country like, the traditional clothing, and the bird that symbolizes freedom.”

Garrison Gist, 1133 Metropolitan Ave.

Garrison Gist is relatively new to creating murals in Charlotte, but he’s made a splash in the local art scene over the last year. His experience in Talking Walls, and his artistic growth over the last year — he was included in two Mint Museum exhibitions, Bodega and Local Street, as well as the Cultured Contrast exhibition in Knight Gallery at Spirit Square — is a testament to the interconnectedness between Charlotte artists.

“I’m kind of one of the younger people in the art community here,” Gist said. “There are a lot of people who’ve been doing it longer than me, so when I get to just sit back and watch them work, it’s amazing. I have a lot of people that I really just sit back and admire.”

Talking Walls organizers contacted Gist on a Friday night with the opportunity, and a 24-hour deadline for his design. The help he received from fellow Charlotte artists like Arko and Aubrey Hedrick was instrumental to the work he created at the Metropolitan. 

Gist decided to employ the comic book style of painting for which he’s best known. The mural combines two images: a pair of lovers embracing — a direct reference to pop art icon Roy Lichtenstein — and a set of eyes, crying, overlaid on top of the lovers. The eyes look anxiously toward the entrance of the parking deck.

“I wanted it all to come together super interactively,” Gist said. “It was definitely very calculated.”

murals in Charlotte
Garrison Gist’s new mural in the dreaded parking garage of Metropolitan Charlotte. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

Gist has titled the work “Beautiful Lies(Eyes),” and beyond his one-sentence description, he’s intent on letting the viewer discern the meaning of the work. 

“I pull from a lot of Lichtenstein references. I was an art history minor in school and I just kind of fell in love with that vintage comic style. I grew up reading comic books and I’ve always been drawn to the older style of drawing like old X-Men comic books and stuff like that. So as far as the direction [of the mural] I knew I wanted to go that route.”

When asked about how he views the Charlotte art scene that he’s recently become such an active part, Gist said, “It’s amazing. It’s growing. I’m only 28 — I never would have seen this when I was a kid [growing up in Charlotte]. How people are embracing the arts in this time is just amazing, and it’s putting us on the same scale as the Atlantas, the LAs, the New Yorks … these big metropolitan cities that have these crazy art scenes.

“Charlotte has always had dope artists, even when the scene wasn’t booming,” he continued. “There’s always been dope artists here. I think Charlotte is in a really great place, and it’s only going to get bigger and better.”

Neka King, 3123 N Davidson St.

Neka King is a muralist and illustrator who is originally from New Orleans but has been a longtime resident of Atlanta, a city known for its abundant street art. In 2019 and 2020 King created murals in collaboration with Living Walls — an Atlanta nonprofit founded in 2009 with a mission similar to that of Talking Walls. Working with Talking Walls gave her the opportunity to reintroduce herself to Charlotte, a city with which she had only a fleeting familiarity. 

For Talking Walls, King adorned the facade of Fat City Lofts in NoDA with one of her signature portraits. It references an archival photograph of an African man, whose ethnicity and tribal status are unbeknownst to King, yet “the way he held his gaze to the camera felt powerful and that was enough for me.”

She rendered him with a pitch-black face glimmering with accents of blue and orange, hovering in front of a swath of sky blue. It’s a style that King has honed both in her murals and digital illustrations.

murals in Charlotte
Neka King’s mural is located on the side of the Fat City Lofts facing the YMCA paring lot in NoDa. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

King said she draws inspiration from painters such as Amy Sherald, Kara Walker, and Kerry James Marshall — icons of contemporary Black portraiture — but also from literature; she’s currently reading Nell Larson’s Passing and next, Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

“I have a few book-cover illustrations in the pipeline,” she tells me. “I really like publishing illustrations, and so those opportunities are very exciting.”

I asked if she has any dream projects, to which she’s quick to respond: “I want to design a monument for a city because I think monuments are boring, and we can do better.  I want to be one of those artists who [responds to] the canon [by] creating ridiculous monuments. I want the monument to be a muse like the Muses [from Greek mythology] that stand for some type of abstract emotion.”

Atlanta Artist Neka King will participate in talking Walls 2021
Neka King works on a past mural in Atlanta. (Photo courtesy of Talking Walls)

I asked her to give me a sense of how Charlotte compares to Atlanta, and she told me working here gave her a sense of nostalgia, reminding her of Atlanta five years ago.

“If a city wants to show off or have the benefits of art, you have to invest in it, like anything—invest time and invest money to really build it out,” King said. “Not just the artworks, but also structures and artist resources, [including] places where artists can learn more about the practice. I would say Atlanta was in the same position maybe five or two years ago, where [artists] were still advocating, making the work, and people were seeing the work. And it was this push over time, but I think Charlotte’s definitely going to get there.”

Susan Lee Mackey collaborated with Talking Walls co-chair Carla Aaron-Lopez on the current exhibition Big New Things at Advent Coworking. You can check out our conversation with Aaron-Lopez and other Talking Walls organizers on episode 49 of the Nooze Hounds podcast.

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