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Seen and Not Forgotten: Art Initiative Highlights Asheville's African American Community

Cass Herrington
BPR News
Monique Luck is one of the local artists leading the Celebrating African-Americans through Public Art project, which includes three public art installations downtown.

Generations of Asheville’s black community will be highlighted in a series of public art installations downtown.  The Celebrating African Americans through Public Art initiative aims to honor the surrounding corridor, The Block, at the heart of the city’s African American history.  

On Fri., the last of four workshops was held at the YMI Cultural Center, one of the nation’s oldest black community centers. Under a chalk-white cathedral ceiling with dark wood beams, kids sifted through strips of colored paper. Nina Simone crooned from a nearby speaker. 

They wove the strips together -- like a lattice pie crust -- folding over and under. Monique Luck lead them in the activity. 

Luck is part of the Art Ecologie Collective that’s behind this community-driven art project. She says like these woven masterpieces, the public art installation is multi-layered. 

Credit Cass Herrington / BPR News
BPR News
The woven collages are comprised of photos, from historical archives and submitted by members of the community. Luck says they'll be scanned and digitally printed on aluminum for the public installations.

“To highlight this voice of the African American community here in Asheville that walked these streets, and they had this thriving community here,” Luck said.  

Her team collected and copied photos from The Block, some of which were taken inside this same building, a century ago. The pictures were cut into strips, and now these kids are weaving them into their collages. The completed weavings will be copied, digitally printed onto sheets of aluminum and displayed on two installations in The Block, one on the corner of Eagle and Biltmore Street and the other just outside the Fire Station, Luck said.

“So that when these children are grown and they come back one day, they can say ‘we were part of this moment, we were part of this history,” Luck said. 

Luck says that’s important, because the streetscape outside this 126-year-old building has changed so much -- if you weren’t looking, you might otherwise miss the history. A new boutique hotel that opened just months ago can be seen just outside the window.

“There’s folks coming in from all over the country and all over the world, and so we want them to understand that there was a culture here before they got here,” local historian Roy Harris said.  

He came by the workshop at the YMI to check in on the kids. His eyes shimmered as he looked across the room. 

“They’re part of this history. And art is one way of doing it, because if I say ‘I want to do a speech for yall,’ they would look at me like ‘oh, lord, here we go again,’” Harris said. “But look at them now. They’re actively engaged, having a conversation across the table with each other.” 

Harris adds, they’re connecting in a space that has been central to Asheville’s black community for more than a century. 

Credit Cass Herrington / BPR News
BPR News
"Art has the ability to slay dragons," historian Roy Harris said. "Dragons are things like discrimination, lack of affordable housing, income inequality." He's holding a picture of his daughter and granddaughter, which will be included in the art installation in The Block.

The conversations extend to adults, too.

“What is the impact this art piece will have on the community, and specifically the African-American community?,” Cortina Jenelle Caldwell asks. She’s the founder of Artists Designing Evolution and is the project manager with the Celebrating African Americans through Public Art project.  

The question was one of several posed to attendees of a workshop at the YMI Friday evening. She shared her response: 

“That we can actually see in real time a more inclusive community,” Jenelle Caldwell said. “I think that Asheville has touted its horn as being diverse and being liberal and progressive in some ways that aren’t deep enough for those of us that live here.”

Jenelle Caldwell says it comes down to merely being seen and represented in certain parts of the city. 

“A lot of times when you walk around downtown in retail space, you don’t see anybody that has brown skin. It takes a lot of work to really connect with that community because of some of the history of gentrification and other forms of erasure.”

That’s where the art comes in, she adds. Jenelle Caldwell says together, they’re creating more inviting spaces for people of color to see themselves and their histories -- and to not allow them to be forgotten. 

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