Exhibition celebrates African-American struggle and success
by Dee Grano
If meaningful success is rooted in sacrifice there is no greater triumph than that of Africans in America celebrated in the blockbuster “America I AM” exhibition that opened Saturday, June 30, at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture on South Tryon Street.
Nearly 500 years of African-American contributions to the United States are covered in “America I AM,” which features 200 artifacts from “the strongest of the strong,” according to Catherine McElvane, director of education and outreach for the Gantt Center. More information is available at www.ganttcenter.org.
“America I AM” illustrates the African-American experience through four thematic pillars: political, spiritual, cultural and socio-economic. Themes cover everything from gospel music’s influence on rock-n-roll to the global impact of Barack Obama’s presidential election.
This multi-media exhibition features large set pieces and dramatic lighting. One gallery has been transformed into an ominous life-sized “slave cave” and features “The Doors of No Return” from the Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, through which countless Africans passed. “America I AM” features the door key and stool from the cell that held Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. where he authored “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
From the oppressive to the progressive, “America I AM” showcases mementos from entertainers like Ray Charles, Michael Jackson, Jimi Hendrix and Prince, whose guitar will be on display. Visitors can see the robe Muhammad Ali wore while training for the “Rumble in the Jungle,” where he defeated world heavyweight champion George Foreman.
Special to the Gantt Center’s installation are the flight suit, boots and helmet worn by retired NASA astronaut and North Carolina resident Joan Higginbotham, who flew aboard Space Shuttle Discovery.
The Gantt Center’s pricing structure for “America I AM” differs from regular museum admission: $12 for adults; $10 for seniors, students and military; $8 for children (aged 3 to 13.) Hours of operation (including modified hours for the Democratic National Convention) are listed online.
Charlotte is the eighth in the 10-city tour of “America I AM.” “We’ve been trying to get the exhibit for two years,” McElvane said. Organizers solidified the dates to envelope the DNC in Charlotte. The exhibit closes Jan. 1, 2013.
“America I AM” is the brainchild of Tavis Smiley, broadcast journalist and author/editor of several books and three New York Times best sellers. Smiley was inspired by the recent anniversary of historic Jamestown, the site of the first permanent English settlement where colonists and Africans first arrived in America.
“By telling the stories of the events of the past, we can help the leaders of the future set the stage for active participation in the democratic process for years to come,” Smiley said. He personally unveiled the exhibition Saturday at a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The exhibition was co-created by John Fleming of the Cincinnati Museum Center; its advisory board includes Cornell West and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Getting “America I AM” was a coup for the Gantt Center, whose main challenge has been fitting it inside the building. Two-thirds of the original mammoth exhibition has been edited to a 10,000 square-foot labyrinth “through public spaces, classrooms, hallways,” McElvane said. “Visitors will see parts of the Gantt Center they normally wouldn’t.”
Accessibility is crucial, according to Bonita Buford, director of communications and operations for the Gantt Center. “Some people think ‘It’s fine art, I won’t understand it,’ but ‘America I AM’ is experiential and immersive for everyone,” she said.
In addition to Saturday’s opening festivities, the Gantt Center offers two workshops; one called “A Life Preserved in Clay” based upon the work of “Dave the Potter,” a South Carolina man who made original poetry-inscribed pots during the 1800s. After a reading of the picture book “Dave the Potter, Artist, Poet, Slave,” Clayworks will teach a pottery workshop. Registration is encouraged; see www.ganttcenter.org for more details.
“I hope youth become more knowledgeable,” said Sharon Holm, marketing specialist for the Gantt Center. “Once they know their history, they’ll know their future.”
Despite the thematic linkage to African-American history, the Gantt Center will be the only African-American museum to host “America I AM.” The Gantt Center (formerly the Afro-American Cultural Center) exists to present, preserve and celebrate the art, history and culture of African-Americans and those of African descent through all means of artistic expression.
“If anyone is curious, this is where they should feel comfortable,” said Buford, who personally welcomes all to the exhibition, especially those who are not African-American. “It’s why we exist.”