One year after Covid-19 shutdowns began, Silent Streets: Art in the Time of Pandemic reflects how it shaped a societal shift
By Liz Rothaus Bertrand
When the world came to a halt in early spring 2020, so did museums everywhere. Doors closed, shipments stopped, planned exhibitions were put on hold. Then cities across the nation erupted in protest, as communities faced a reckoning with long-term injustices and systemic racism. The concurrent events posed a challenge: How could the Mint best serve the community through the crisis and uprising, while also facing financial uncertainty and logistical challenges caused by the pandemic?
“This gave us [an] opportunity,” says Jen Sudul Edwards, PhD, the Mint’s chief curator and curator of contemporary art. “Instead of showing an exhibition that seemed incongruous with the times, we were able to construct something that reflected the times.”
Silent Streets: Art in the Time of Pandemic opened April 21 at Mint Museum Uptown. The Mint commissioned new works by three North Carolina artists—Amy Bagwell, Antoine Williams, and Stacy Lynn Waddell. Their task: create works of art that respond to something that has happened since the pandemic began and reflects some change in their practice.
CAPTURING A MOMENT WE’RE STILL EXPERIENCING
As poet and mixed-media artist Amy Bagwell reflects on the past year, she lands on one overriding sensation: dissonance. Bagwell, who also teaches English at Central Piedmont Community College, watched her students grapple with both the dire consequences of COVID-19 and racial injustice. And yet she also heard people deny the virus’s existence and claim the protests were unjustified.
“That dissonance is terrifying,” Bagwell says. “Absurd in a painful way.”
Poetry she wrote during the Covid-19 pandemic inspired the three large-scale collages she created for Silent Streets. “As artists we’re trying to document this moment of multiple vexations,” Bagwell says, “but it will be an interim document because we’ll be going through this during and after the show. We don’t yet have the benefit of distance.”
CONFRONTING SYSTEMIC RACISM
Greensboro-based artist Antoine Williams says 2020 was shaping up to be a great year—but ended up being one of the worst. The pandemic upended his personal and professional lives while exposing, once again, systemic racism across the nation.
An assistant professor of art at Guilford College, Williams says his work is influenced by critical race theory. For Silent Streets, his mixed-media work looks at the uprisings and their meaning. He explores the objectification of Black labor and culture, and the absurdity of public shock when Black people speak up against injustice.
Creating during this challenging time has been cathartic, Williams says. “It’s a way of me shouting at the universe … or to feel like I’m contributing to this conversation.”
RECLAIMING SYMBOLS OF POWER
Artist Stacy Lynn Waddell of Durham often takes tools and uses them in new ways, redefining how we communicate. She has used branding irons on paper and acid to paint, among other experimental techniques.
For Silent Streets, Waddell explores themes like representation and inclusion in symbols of power. Working alongside a master quilter, she used homemade textiles to create flags. By using a technique from a domestic realm and bringing it to a public sphere, she envisioned a way to reclaim symbols such as flags that are often weaponized, and explored how they could be redesigned to be more inclusive.
“I think we’ll look back on this years later [and say] ‘This was an opportunity, even in all the bleak, difficult, sad lolling out of all of it,” Waddell says. “It’s still been an opportunity.”
OTHER PANDEMIC-BORN PERSPECTIVES
These three commissions form the core of the exhibition, but Silent Streets also features a wide spectrum of artists’ works during the pandemic. The exhibition also includes photo highlights from Diary of a Pandemic, a collaboration between Magnum Photos and National Geographic that features images taken by stranded photojournalists around the world in 2020.
In the Pandemic Comics part of the exhibition, the focus is on how syndicated comic strips such as “Pearls Before Swine,” “Liō,” and “Tank McNamara” changed course suddenly as COVID-19 upended our lives. Silent Streets will also features As the Boundary Pulls Us Apart, a video and soundscape projection created by Charlotte artists Matt Steele and Ben Geller.
Liz Rothaus Bertrand is a Charlotte-based freelance writer who has a love of the arts in all its forms.
This story was originally published in the January, 2021 issue of Inspired, the Mint’s biannual member magazine.