A collection of 26 sculptures by Doug Knotts, professor and chair of the visual arts department at Gardner-Webb University, presents racial tensions across the country through the lens of historical elements of African culture.
The terracotta pieces, called “Unarmed African American Portrait Heads”, will be on display July 8 through August 12 at the Cleveland County Arts Council, 111 S. Washington St., Shelby.
Gardner-Webb is an Affiliate Member of the Arts Council.
Most of Knotts’ models were students of Gardner-Webb, and a few were college kids he taught in the 1990s at a Magnet school in Charlotte. He intentionally chose students as role models to represent individuals whose deaths led to rallies, marches and dialogue about racial injustices.
“I informed all of the models of the show before taking their photos to use them as reference studies,” Knotts said. “All the models agreed that there was a need to shed light on the problem of racial profiling. “
He added, “They may just be clay sculptures, but clay is a sacred material. I hope that the ideas that are embodied in the work can be heard.
Part of the exhibit was presented to Gardner-Webb in an open discussion with students on racial inequalities. In 2016, the series was selected by a jury for the ArtFields Festival and Competition, a prestigious event in Lake City, SC, which showcases the work of artists in 12 states.
Knotts said altering portraits to reflect African heritage was an intuitive aesthetic decision, as was his response to the loss of self-image he witnessed in his students. He explained the meaning of some of the techniques:
- Face painting manifests an emotional state of celebrating or observing an event.
- The symbols of scarification are traditionally practiced to beautify the body and mark the individual as a person of courage.
- The colors green, black and red are part of the universal African flag.
- A bowl of Kola nuts; Chewing Kola nut releases caffeine and other stimulants and helps relieve hunger and restore vitality. Kola nuts were used as sacred offerings during life events.
The sculptures are for sale, with the exception of one representing a 6th grade student he taught.
“Mike struggled with his identity over the years that I got to know him,” Knotts said. “He challenged me in so many ways as a teacher and as a human being. He didn’t know easy, or fair, or hope. I give him the mischievous smile he used to disguise the difficulties of his younger years. This whole series of sculptures was created to recognize the enormous potential of the young African American students I have taught over the years.