By Matt Cosper (Updated)
April 5, 2019
The Duke Memorial Library at Johnson C. Smith University is about to become the most forward thinking arts space in the city. JCSU and Levine Museum of the New South have partnered to create a constellation of creative projects telling the story of a key corridor on Charlotte’s West Side, the stretch of Beatties Ford around Exit 37 off of Interstate 77. The Duke library is using the largest ever Culture Block Grant to fund RCLM 37, an innovative art and history project that uses historical sources remixed by contemporary artists and historians to map future narratives for the Beatties Ford/Biddleville corridor. The project (pronounced Reclaim 37) conceptualized by Creative Director Janelle Dunlap, is a collaboration between a host of Charlotte’s most interesting scholars and artists, including the Levine Museum’s Willie Griffin, Graphic Artist Marcus Kiser, Interior Designer Quintel Gwinn, Musicians F.L.L.S and Elevator Jay, and filmmaker Surf Mitchell.
Dunlap started out determined to work in politics, but an internship on Capitol Hill convinced her that her path was leading elsewhere. Two years with Americorp laid the foundation for her non-profit career, providing hands on experience with the issues she has become most interested in: education, voters’ rights and housing justice. In recent years, her work has opened up into more creative arenas, including a community vision board at Boom Festival in 2017 and the Time Camp micro-festival at Goodyear Arts. Dunlap sees herself as a collage artist, bringing disparate elements together creatively to create a new context, illuminating new futures.
“We think these things that happened in the past, only exist in the past and they can’t be brought to the future. In terms of mix-matching and wanting to put things together, aligning them, I guess that’s how I became a fan of Black Quantum Futurism,” she said.
Dunlap is an enthusiastic proponent of the cultural aesthetic known as Afro-Futurism. The Afro-Futuristic point of view is one that projects the narratives, culture and histories of black people into the future. This lies at the heart of the RCLM 37 project. In RCLM 37, local black creatives have taken the artifacts of Charlotte’s black history and remixed it into contemporary forms, laying trap beats under Oral Histories of the Biddleville area, and creating an installation of contemporary collages made from archival images. A documentary film that utilizes the material has been created as well.
RCLM 37 is more than just a remix, it’s a reimagining of what the museum experience can be. Inspired by interactive experimental/experiential art spaces like The Wonder Museum in Chicago or Meow Wolf in New Mexico, RCLM 37 is designed to pull history off the walls, out of the archive and into our laps as an interactive experience. It’s an exciting step forward for the way we experience history in Charlotte and, as with a great deal of cultural innovation, it’s young people of color pushing it forward. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a project of this scope is coming out the neighborhood affectionately known as The Ford. Charlotte’s West side has been sending talented artists out in the world for years and now, says Dunlap, RCLM 37 is a chance for our world-class artists to make a statement in their own neck of the woods.
This area is the oldest black street-car community in Charlotte. Biddleville was built around Johnson C. Smith University (then called Biddle University) in 1867, when black communities were experiencing the first tentative flush of the reconstruction. Biddleville managed to hold its center during the urban renewal of the 1960s and ‘70s, but recent gentrification has seen some aspects of the neighborhood changing. Experiences like RCLM 37 are aimed at honoring the history of Charlotte’s historic black neighborhoods, while also staking a claim to those neighborhoods’ futures. As the work of Pittsburgh-based Afro-Futurist artist Alisha Wormsley proclaimed: “There Are Black People In The Future.” Those people need someplace to live, and it only makes sense that they should keep living in the communities they’ve built, nurtured, and held onto all throughout America’s abusive relationship with them.
Monika Rhue, Program Director and Director of Library Services and Curation, JCSU says in a press release that this project is a means of preserving an important part of Charlotte’s history: “Stories and art can facilitate engagement in emotional topics, like urban renewal.” With style for miles and a bold aesthetic vision, RCLM 37 seems poised to prove that resistance can be celebratory and beautiful, and that the future is bright for Charlotte’s West Side.