Carolina Complexions: Celebrating Black artists and creatives in North Carolina

 By Courtney Napier

June 21, 2021

Last week we commemorated Juneteenth as a federal holiday for the first time. Communities all over North Carolina held celebrations large and small, with Black art as the centerpiece. This month we recognize ten more artists who are leading our state’s renaissance of Black creatives, from Grammy-nominated jazz singer Nnenna Freelon to emerging photographer, Mariah Tyes.

Blackness is not a monolith, and we continue to recognize those artists who live at the intersection of race, gender, and sexuality. Trailblazing author and poet Alexis Pauline Gumbs and rising mixed media artist Ambrose Murray are queering their respective genres by bending expectations and breaking rules. 



At a time when our stories, academic theories, and perspectives are under attack, our artists’ role as a lifeline to truth and space to feel seen and beautiful has become more important than ever. The following ten artists are offering us healing, hope, and expanded imagination as we build a new and better future.

Jason Woodberry is a Charlotte mixed media artist whose art can be viewed through a technological, Afrofuturist lens. In 2014, Woodberry, along with fellow artist Marcus Kiser and performer Quentin Talley created Intergalactic Soul. This ongoing conceptual experience with music, graphic design, and art was created to bring “science fiction and social awareness together as one.” One element of that concept was a show that debuted in February of 2020 at Duke Energy Theatre. The exhibition told the story of two young Black boys traveling through space, and their journey leads to encounters with characters that represent larger social issues like racism and gentrification. Another aspect of the concept, Project LHAXX, debuted in 2019, and is a large mural of golden symbols that evoke African artistic traditions and galactic technologies. Viewers could then interact with the mural using Artivive, a downloadable augmented reality app to find hidden messages. Woodberry revealed on his Instagram page that he will be in an upcoming show this summer, which will include his latest works. 

 

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Stephen L. Hayes, Jr. is a renowned sculptor and writer from Durham. The North Carolina Central University graduate uses found objects like wood, rope, clay, and cement to create larger than life installations that have the ability to transport the viewer to another time. In his latest collection called “Cash Crop!” the viewer is taken back to the Antebellum era when Black people were considered property in a visceral representation of the transatlantic slave trade. One of the first and most impactful components of “Cash Crop!” are fifteen life-sized clay casts (representing Hayes’ loved ones) that are shackled and chained to shipping pallets shaped like small boats. Created to represent the 15 million Africans who were captured and transported to the Americas over the slave trade’s first 300 years, viewers literally stand eye to hollow eye with the manacled sculptures. 

Along with his position as a full-time art instructor at Duke University, Hayes is currently working on a bronze statue in honor of the United States Colored Troops who fought for the Union during the Civil War, set to be unveiled this fall. The statue’s home will be the Cameron Art Museum, located in Wilmington.

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Mariah Tyes of Retrospectyes Photography is an emerging fine art photographer based in Fayetteville. A 2021 LensCulture Critic’s Choice finalist, Tyes’ ability to capture the female form in its most uninhibited beauty is phenomenal. The winning image, entitled “Melanin Madness,” has an ethereal, mirage-like quality to it– like four goddesses are visiting you in a golden dream. Tye shares on her website that her work “focuses on capturing beauty within the imperfections. Allowing women to look as beautiful as they feel, and feel as beautiful as they look.” 

In 2018, Tyes exploded onto the scene with her photography featured in publications like Vogue Italia online, Art of Portrait, and AFI Magazine. Her risk-taking style manages to balance the strength and tenderness of a woman’s body, as well as unapologetically highlight her most beautiful parts. Be on the lookout for where Tyes’ work will appear next, and make sure you’re looking towards the stars.

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Carey J. King is a visual storyteller from New York who currently resides in Charlotte. King describes his style as “emotion” photography– an aesthetic that pulls in closely to the subject and picks up on detailed facial expressions, body language, and other small yet significant peculiarities in order to tell a larger, emotive narrative. The death of King’s grandfather opened him up to seeing the world in this new, more sensitive and curious way. A gatherer and disrupter by nature, King started monthly “photo walks” in 2017 as a way to meet and interact with other Charlotte photographers and artists. He had already made a name for himself as a photographer and community leader in several creative positions, including Director of Community Engagement at the Light Factory, house photographer for Magnolia Emporium, and the official photographer for The Gold District of Historic South End, so these walks helped to reinforce those connections. As a member of BLK MKRT, a Black artist’s collective and event space, his work will be a part of the upcoming exhibition “It Takes A Village” at the Mint Museum Randolph. The show kicks off on Saturday, June 12, and runs through mid-September.

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Lakeshia T. Reid is a graphic designer turned portraitist, as well as the co-owner and curator of 311 Gallery in Raleigh. Reid earned her bachelor’s in graphic design in 2011, but has developed her delicate and serene painting technique all on her own. In 2017, Reid created her first collection of oil paintings entitled #BlackGirlMagic. As she describes, it’s “a phrase/movement that celebrates positive messages and images of black women, with a nod to the fantastical.” The airy color palate and the nod to the tarot helps Reid’s paintings take on a mythological quality. Her work has been exhibited regionally in juried shows at the National Humanities Center, the African American Atelier and the Hillsborough Gallery of Art, and her first solo show took place in February 2020 at the Triangle Community Foundation in Durham. 

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Valarie Jean Bailey, a renowned mixed media artist, continues the rich African American legacy of quiltmaking and fiber arts from her residence in Clayton. She received the 2008-2009 N.C. Arts Council Fellowship Award, and her artwork has also been on exhibit at the beautiful Greenhill Center for NC Art in Greensboro. Bailey’s quilt making style is characterized by “the association of hand and machine-stitched blocks, photographic reproductions, and texts with hand-stitched, three-dimensional forms made from fabric and unconventional embellishments,” as explained by Edie Carpenter, the director of the Greenhill Center. 

The stories that shape Bailey’s narrative quilts are part biographical and part collective memory of the Black experience. When reflecting on her piece, “Trees, Friends on the UGRR,” Bailey noted that the piece was “created to help you tell the story of how trees are friends to runaway slaves (passengers) on the Underground Railroad [UGRR]. When you look at the panels, the story will unfold.” Every panel, fold, and stitch crafted by Bailey throughout her impressive career has connected each viewer with herself and our greater American story.

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Trees, Friends on the UGRR by Valarie Jean Bailey

Andre Leon Gray was born, raised, and currently resides in Southeast Raleigh– a claim few can make in the City of Oaks. The multimedia artist is self-taught with two permanent museum collections in the California African American Museum and the North Carolina Museum of Art. The alumnus of the Fountainhead Residency in Miami has also had his art exhibited across the country, including the United Nations Headquarters. Last year, Gray received the first ever U.S. Fellowship Artist Residency at Eastside International (ESXLA) in Los Angeles. 

With a penchant for the provocative, Gray likens his work to that of a hip-hop producer. He samples iconography from within the Black community, then twists and screws it to reveal its own distinct narrative. For example, his sculpture “Black Magic (It’s Fantastic),” resembles an African mask that Gray fashioned out of (among other materials) a basketball, shoe laces, and a Nike Air Jordan sweatband. Basketball is actually a recurring theme in Gray’s work, which made him the perfect addition to the new book Common Practice: Basketball and Contemporary Art edited by Carlos Rolón, Dan Peterson, and John Dennis. 

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Ambrose Murray is a rising star from Asheville by way of Florida. After earning her bachelor’s degree from Yale in African American studies, Murray taught herself how to sew and paint. Murray carries multitudes– Black, biracial, queer, Southerner, artist, teacher, activist, musician– and layers them into her art like the delicate fabrics and paper that often find their way into her collages. Her style is spiritual, fluid, and rich. Saturated in color and meaning, Murray’s African American studies background informs her artistic process as she begins her work with old photographs and archived materials. Human figures are often partially obscured, either silhouetted, veiled, or otherwise disjointed. This is exemplified in one of her most recent pieces, “She came to my mirror in a dream.” In this piece, Murray painted two figures on muslin, then laid a piece of hand-dyed silk overtop, to create a dream-like quality. Standing near the beginning of her professional artistic career, it is exciting to think about where she will go next. 

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Photo by Frank Frumento

Alexis Pauline Gumbs walks in the footsteps of Anna Julia Jacobs and Pauli Murray as a a Queer Black Troublemaker and Black Feminist Love Evangelist. The Duke graduate earned her PhD in English, African and African American Studies and Women and Gender Studies. A poet and author, Gumbs has penned four books and contributed to many more. Her latest, Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals, is “a book-length meditation for social movements and our whole species based on the subversive and transformative guidance of marine mammals.” Gumbs is also a nurturer of Black women and femmes through several different artistic and contemplative experiences. Brilliance Remastered, a supportive group for Black womxn academics, and the Mobile Homecoming Trust Living Library & Archive and the Black Feminist Bookmobile, are just two of the gifts Gumbs provides to her community. On any given Sunday, you can catch her and her partner Sangodare Wallace leading viewers in song and spiritual contemplation during their virtual Mobile Homecoming Sunday services

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Nnenna Freelon is a six-time Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist, composer, actress and playwright from Durham. She is also the matriarch of the legendary Freelon family. The late architect Phil Freelon was her husband of 40 years before he succumbed to ALS, and she is mother to musician and activist Pierce, visual artists Maya, and Deen, assistant professor of journalism at the University of North Carolina. Freelon began her singing career with a self-titled album in 1992, which jump started her work on eleven more projects, including contributions with the likes of Ray Charles, Ellis Marsalis, George Benson, Al Jarreau, and more. Her latest project, Time Traveler, is her return to the studio after ten years. The last two years have dealt her a tragic hand with the loss of her husband and then, six months later, her sister, Dr. Debbie Pierce. Freelon’s grief journey inspired the songs for this recent album, a collection of covers that reflect on loss, mourning, and love. 

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