Gantt Center installation spans the Middle Passage

Posted on February 9, 2012


By Michael J. Solender

Posted: Friday, Jan. 13, 2012


  • Along with “Cash Crop,” two additional collections – “Rhythm-A-Ning” by James Phillips, Charles Searles and Frank Smith, and “Contemporary African Photography” by Malick Sidibé and Zwelethu Mthetwa – will be unveiled at this special exhibit opening.

    WHEN: All three exhibitions will be at the Gantt Center through June 30. The official opening is from 6-9 tonight (reservations required).

    WHERE: Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts+Culture, 561 S. Tryon St.

    TICKETS: $5 (free for Gantt Center members).

    DETAILS: 704-547-3700;

During the course of his work with Rites of Passage, an African-American youth mentoring program in Durham, Stephen Hayes was exposed to a diagram of the 18th-century Brooke slave ship.

Stunned by the imagery, Hayes, 28, a mixed-media sculptor, discovered research estimating some 15 million African slaves made such passage between 1540 and 1850. The diagram, complete with its intricate design on how to maximize space utilization of its human cargo, inspired Hayes to create “Cash Crop,” an installation of 15 (one for each one million slaves) life-sized slave-trade sculptures.

The Atlanta-based artist’s installation is the centerpiece of three exhibits opening today at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts+Culture.

Joining “Cash Crop” in tonight’s opening – which coincides with the center’s Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend activities – are two additional exhibits that expand on the Gantt’s 2012 programming theme: “Bridging Africa and the New World.” They are:

“Rhythm-A-Ning”: A vibrant exhibit showcasing the abstract work of James Phillips, Charles Searles and Frank Smith, artists whose work visually reflects the characteristics of jazz. Phillips and Smith are colleagues in AfriCOBRA, the innovative art group dedicated to defining a uniquely black aesthetic in the visual arts and creating work that speaks to those needs.

“Contemporary African Photography: Malick Sidibé & Zwelethu Mthetwa”: These are two of the most influential and accomplished African photographers alive. Mali-based Sidibé is perhaps best known for his black-and-white studies of ’60s pop culture in Bamako; Mthetwa’s large color images document working people and their conditions in his homeland of South Africa.

As for Hayes’s “Cash Crop,” it’s likely to be accompanied by powerful and dramatic discussion. Gantt Center president and CEO David Taylor said he is excited to highlight art that engages the community in discussion about important social issues.

“This is not art that people simply view passively,” said Taylor. “It is work that has been created to elicit a response, and for people to experience emotionally.”

Not content to simply depict the horrors of slavery and the Middle Passage, Hayes draws parallels between this era of slavery and present conditions in Third World countries that transport today’s “cash crop” in the form of manufactured goods. That many of these goods are made using sweatshops and by violating and exploiting human rights is not lost on Hayes.

“I like the dialogue that I hear as people experience my work,” said Hayes, whose creations are composed of cement, wood, steel and fabric. “There are people in certain parts of the world today that are still looked upon as merely commodities. I hope my work can help illustrate and subsequently eliminate that.”

This article was created as part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance, a consortium of local media dedicated to writing about the arts scene.
Posted in: Gantt Center