Arts & Culture

‘Like someone I know.’ Chapel Hill art show marks arrival of first enslaved Africans

“I can’t stop the past,” Durham, N.C., artist Stephen Hayes says. “All you can do is learn from it and teach. His installation, “Cash Crop,” featuring 15 life-size sculptures of enslaved Africans in chains, runs through Nov. 17, 2019, at 109 E. Franklin St. in downtown Chapel Hill.
“I can’t stop the past,” Durham, N.C., artist Stephen Hayes says. “All you can do is learn from it and teach. His installation, “Cash Crop,” featuring 15 life-size sculptures of enslaved Africans in chains, runs through Nov. 17, 2019, at 109 E. Franklin St. in downtown Chapel Hill. mschultz@newsobserver.com

Fifteen ashen figures stand with their eyes downcast, their wrists shackled.

Men, women and children. Trails of rust-colored droplets line their chests and cheeks like the residue of sweat and tears.

Chains run across the floor, connecting the figures’ wrists to a shipping pallet carved with the United States seal.

When Anna Richards first saw Stephen Hayes’ sculptures, she thought, “My God, the symbolism.” The Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP president was glad she had arrived early to the exhibit, called “Cash Crop!” She could be alone while taking it all in.

The figures, she said at the show’s opening in Chapel Hill Oct. 19, look familiar, “like someone I know.”

That’s a reaction Hayes, a Durham native now teaching at Duke University, said he was hoping to evoke. He made the life-sized sculptures so that people could look at them eye to eye, he said, “so that when people see it, they think, ‘It looks like somebody I know,’ or, ‘It looks like me.’”

He made the sculptures that are part of the Cash Crop! exhibit in 2010 as part of his final work in the master of fine arts program at the Savannah College of Art and Design.

Since then, the exhibit has been traveling. It’s on display at Gallery 109, a pop-up exhibit space in a storefront at 109 E. Franklin St. in Chapel Hill.

One of the figures was created from a mold of Hayes’ own body. The others were modeled by his friends and family, each of whom had to stand still while the cast dried, Hayes’ brother William King said. For some, that experience brought tears, bringing to mind the confinement that their ancestors faced on slave ships across the Atlantic.

The 15 figures stand in for the 15 million Africans subjected to the transatlantic slave trade. Each backs up to a structure resembling a ship partly burned. On the reverse side, Hayes carved an image of bodies tightly packed inside a ship’s hull.

The shackles and chains that Hayes forged out of railroad spikes connect the past to the present, King said. Hayes wants people to reflect not only on the humanity of people who were historically treated as commodities, but also on how the United States still exploits labor.

“Sweatshops today are mirror images of slave ships from the past — people have just enough space to produce as many goods as possible,” he said in his artist statement.

The show, on display through Nov. 17, is part of a three-event series in Chapel Hill marking the 400-year anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in what is now the United States. Go to chapelhillpopups.com for hours.

A daylong event called the 1619 Collective Memory(ies) Symposium is slated for Nov. 11 at the UNC Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History.

At the Chapel Hill Library, a six-panel exhibit telling the story of those first Africans’ journey and their lives in Virginia will be on display until Nov. 18.

Carli Brosseau is a reporter at The News & Observer who often analyzes databases as part of her work. She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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