Artists reclaim artifacts, create new narratives at new Greenville Museum of Art 'Marauders' exhibit
A new exhibit at the Greenville Museum of Art reinterprets stories of African artifacts and African American history. The artists used images and ideas from archives to create original works that explore concepts of storytelling, looting, appropriation and vigilantes.
Antoine Williams is one of three artists whose work is on display as part of the Greenville Museum of Art’s new exhibit titled “Marauders.” The exhibit is two years in the making and Williams has provided three large wheat paste murals. They’re like black and white decals affixed to the wall.
Williams is interested in mythology, and recently, he dove into African American mythology.
“There’s this one character, John the Conqueror, and he’s this shape-shifting trickster god," Williams said. "There’s tales of him during slavery that he’d play tricks on slaveowners. He would bend reality to his will, but the goal was to help enslaved Black folks survive slavery.”
In the mural, a young black woman and a man, sharecroppers, are stringing tobacco up to dry. The work is influenced by an archival image.
“But I’m changing it to show movement where John the Conqueror is manifesting to sort of liberate these two figures," Williams said. "In their hands they have tobacco leaves, but it starts to morph into these feathers and it's a manifestation of John the Conqueror himself.”
Most of the works in the exhibit take images or stories from the past and recreate them.
Just a few feet away, are four ceramic heads. They’re wearing futuristic head gear.
Donte Hayes crafted these heads by coiling the clay, then molding it into shape. It’s a similar process to how pots are made in Africa. The heads are mostly unglazed, and Hayes says that's intentional.
“That's the color of the clay itself before they're fired, they look brown," Hayes said. "When you first think about ceramics, you always think about putting something on top of it. But the clay itself is beautiful. Let's enjoy that. Just like I'm trying to say, let's enjoy this black skin.”
Hayes got the idea for the pieces from a story of a German explorer, Leo Frobenius, who dug up a set of bronze heads and terracotta figures in Benin and Nigeria.
“He saw these beautiful naturalistic heads and he was like 'These must be from the city of Atlantis,'" Hayes said about Frobenius, who refused to believe the art was made in Africa. "Instead of seeing them as being from black people, he thought they were coming from Greeks. That bothered me.”
Hayes, who is a fan of comic books, takes that story and recreates it.
“I wanted to make these pieces to speak on the idea of our own ancestry, one showing where it really came from," he said. "But also, let's talk about the present. What powerful heroes we are today. In a way, they kind of look like superheroes helmets.”
In the other exhibit hall, a pulsating bass beat fills the room. The hall has two murals. On one wall, written in bold text repeatedly are the words "STEAL YOURSELF." On the other wall, which is painted red, he has three images with bolded black lettering over each. Over an image of Michael Jordan is the word loser. In the middle, the word love with a speaker as the “O”. The third, an image of Harriet Tubman and the word looter.
“The looter on Harriet Tubman — it's kind of collapsing time in on itself because if we thought about Harriet Tubman during the 1800s, they definitely would have called her a looter because black people were seen as objects, as property at one time.”
The original art is on display alongside historical African artwork and artifacts, on loan from the ECU’s Gray Collection. Hayes says they got the idea for showing African art while discussing the focus of the “Marauders” exhibit.
“I was like, that's the coolest concept. About the first thing I thought of was ‘Tribe called Quest’ in the Midnight Marauder song and then thinking about that is like what we just talked about. The British Museum taking ancestry and then trying to create a new narrative, marauding as something that was
considered now Greek or good because they thought it was naturalistic. Oh, this is good black art because we can see ourselves in it. You know what I mean? So once again, we're taking that back. We're taking the narratives back.”
The Marauder’s Exhibit opened Friday at the Greenville Museum of Art and will be on display until late February.