September 05, 2018 Arts » Cover story

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Alvin C. Jacobs Jr. Shines a Light on Brookhill Village in New Gantt Center Exhibit 

Humanizing displacement

Like the images he captures, Alvin C. Jacobs Jr. chooses his words carefully.

As we stand on Village Court in the back of Brookhill Village, where Jacobs has spent the last three months thoroughly documenting the lives of the last families who will call the 67-year-old community home, he contemplates every word.

click to enlarge Alvin C. Jacobs Jr. in Brookhill Village. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)
  • Alvin C. Jacobs Jr. in Brookhill Village. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

Nobody in the neighborhood is outside on this Thursday afternoon. They're all either at work or inside escaping the 90-plus-degree heat. But as we stand under the only tree we can find, Jacobs is in no rush.

The way he paces and looks down to consider each thought before he express it — but not so long as to lose the listener's interest — you'd think this was a well-thought-out TED Talk, with thousands listening.

But I'm the only audience.

"I know who I am and I know what I know how to do professionally and creatively, but this is their space, this is their neighborhood, this is their community, and I had to be cognizant of how they were being viewed at all times," he says before gesturing at the street lined with alternately pastel-colored units, the paint long worn from age. Some are empty, already boarded up, and they'll be demolished soon enough. Those who do still live in the units will eventually be evicted, their homes torn down.

"It's one thing to say, 'Hey, look at the buildings,' but I didn't want the project to be about the buildings, I wanted the project to be about the soul and the heart of the people," Jacobs continues.

The project Jacobs is referring to is called Welcome to Brookhill, a newly commissioned exhibit that will front a new season of activist-themed exhibits at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts+Culture. The museum has called the new season Revealed: Where Art Meets Activism.

Kicking off with a preview party on the evening of September 7 and a community opening on September 8, Revealed will also include Question Bridge: Black Males, a multimedia exhibit that explores the implicit bias that black men face in the United States; and Hank Willis Thomas: What We Ask Is Simple, a photography exhibit on loan from the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York City that showcases photos from different 20th-century American protests ranging from women's suffrage to the civil rights movement to Stonewall.

At the forefront of the new Gantt Center season is Welcome to Brookhill, an exhibit that includes not only Jacobs' photography but a deep dive into what life is for the folks living in the condemned community. The exhibit includes insights from Jacobs and the residents he spent months getting to know. It also includes anecdotes and research about Brookhill done by James E. Ford, a member of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force. Local artist David Butler, founder of Analogue Luxury, helped curate and design the exhibit.

click to enlarge A photo from the 'Welcome to Brookhill' exhibit. (Photo by Alvin C. Jacobs Jr.)
  • A photo from the 'Welcome to Brookhill' exhibit. (Photo by Alvin C. Jacobs Jr.)

For Jacobs, who spent weeks walking the neighborhood and getting to know its residents before bringing a camera into the equation, it was important that the project focus on the human side of a story that has often been dehumanized in the news.

"I made sure when it was time to photograph and to document, my heart was in the right place, and that they understood how they were going to be captured," he says.

Jacobs' photos, all in black and white, show little girls playing in an inflatable pool, community elders talking with each other, little boys reading comic books on their front steps, mixed in with landscape photos that depict the destruction of units already torn down and the dilapidation of homes that are either abandoned or still occupied.

The effect is a visceral feeling of black joy tainted by condemnation.

"I wanted to capture the truth and the essence of hard work and dedication, but also not having control," Jacobs says. "You go to work. You worship God and you take care of your children and all these other things but you just don't know where you're going to live. That's tough, man. And I wanted to capture not just the struggle of that, but the beauty of making it in spite of."

For David Taylor, president and CEO at the Gantt Center, it was also key that the artist who tackled this project did so with a sense of empathy and humanity.

"It was important we go in and be a part of the community," Taylor says. "I thought the Gantt Center needed to take a role of championing and illuminating the voice of the voiceless. It was clear that the people that are affected the most, when they show up in television or they show up in print, their stories aren't really told."

Taylor met Jacobs at an arts festival shortly after Jacobs moved to Charlotte six years ago. Taylor remained aware of Jacobs' work. Although considering other, out-of-town photographers for this project, Taylor says the choice was an easy one when it came down to it.

click to enlarge David Taylor (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)
  • David Taylor (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

He says he wanted to make sure the Brookhill project would not be a one-stop exhibit, and having someone local like Jacobs who can continue to document the stories of residents there was important to him. As the new artist-in-residence at Gantt Center for the coming year, Jacobs will remain close to the residents of Brookhill. He will hold workshops to help connect them with community resources while also continuing to document their experiences.

"We don't just want to say, 'Here's some pictures and thank you all, now come have some punch with us,'" Taylor says. "We want to be there and to be a part of their journey in a sense that we want to continue to shine light on the challenges that they face."

That's OK with Jacobs, who has no intentions of dipping in and out of the story, as he's seen other outlets do. Always the image activist, he remains aware of the problematic issues that stories like this bring up in both the art world and the media world.

"We're going to amplify this story, and with the continued programming we have to be extremely careful not to art-wash it, it's not just beautiful pictures," he says. "This is what it's about to be a part of a community. You don't parachute in with all your fancy equipment, do what you gotta do and then do something else. These are my people. And it's important that if there's something that I can do and there's a platform that I have if I can help anyone to tell their story then that's my job."

In light of the current political and social climates in this country, Taylor has been rethinking his own job as president and CEO of Charlotte's most prestigious institution celebrating the story of African-American culture.

I meet with Taylor in a boardroom above the exhibitions at the Gantt Center, overlooking a construction site across the street from the museum, in which construction workers are working on a 26-story office building to be anchored by Ally Financial, including a hotel that could very well be a boon to the museum's business.

When I say as much, Taylor is quick to recognize that not all is well in a quickly developing city. He says he hopes exhibits like Welcome to Brookhill highlight the fact that development needs to remain inclusive. When I ask about the contrast between positive development like that across the street and the displacement that's happening a little further down South Tryon Street. He says he hopes the conversation around the Gantt's upcoming exhibits will help spur city leaders and developers to do the right thing.

"Something's going to go in that [Brookhill] space," he says. "There's certainly a tremendous amount of focus on affordable housing and these kinds of things, so hopefully we keep Brookhill at the top of the conversation so that some of those resources and things that are taking place [will help us] bring other collaborators to the table as well."

The Revealed opening is just the beginning of a new mission Taylor has decided to pursue with the Gantt Center; a mission to "double down" on efforts to elevate the voices of marginalized communities and emphasize the importance of activism in the face of injustice, he says.

The new direction was inspired by a growing sense of political vitriol and increased dialogue around race and social justice in the United States. It's different from anything Taylor done in nearly 10 years as president and CEO, he says.

"The social climate that we're faced with kind of dictates to an organization like us — and those of us who believe in fairness and justice and equality — that we actually have to double down in the work that we do. We can't just say we're doing it," Taylor says.

"It's not reinventing our mission or anything of that nature. In simple terms, we're doubling down on what we do. The current climate requires that we be louder and more intense, and more committed than ever about helping educate folks about making our community better and making sure that's certain for everyone."

Revealed is the first step in that mission, and Welcome to Brookhill isn't the only piece.

click to enlarge A piece by Hank Willis Thomas viewed in the flash of a camera. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)
  • A piece by Hank Willis Thomas viewed in the flash of a camera. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

What We Ask Is Simple is a powerful photography exhibit that literally forces its viewers to shine a light on the efforts of activists who spent the 20th century fighting to expose the darkest injustices in American society. Using retroreflective vinyl, Hank Thomas Willis turns iconic photographs — including one of Dorothy Counts being harassed as she integrates Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools — into artworks that resemble overexposed negatives, which can only be seen when exposed to a flashlight in a dark room.

Taylor references the photo of Counts walking with her head up high as children and adults alike hit her with a barrage of insults. He then points out that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools remains one of the most segregated school systems in the country, despite the progress made in the early 1990s.

"It's a reminder to us that the important work that we're doing is not over because you can flashback," Taylor says. "When you literally shine a light on some of these dark moments in history, or iconic moments in many cases still, they could very well be now."

Taylor decided to purchase a part of another exhibit, Question Bridge: Black Males, to keep as a long-term part of the Gantt Center experience.

Clips that are about 20 seconds long are alternating across five TV screens depicting black men as they discuss the stigmas surrounding mental health in the black community. Some of them explain why they themselves refuse to seek help for issues they deal with.

To the right, a larger screen shows some of these same men simply looking at the camera, as if preparing to speak or posing for a picture. Of the seven or eight people sitting on the benches inside the exhibit, silently focused on the changing screens in the dark room, none appear to be black.

Taylor says the exhibit is meant to force people to confront the implicit biases that they live with on a day-to-day basis, which they remain completely unaware of for the most part.

"One of the key things about it is it really becomes a restructuring of humanity," Taylor says. "Those things about, 'What's your identity? How are you perceived?' I think black men perhaps challenge more around identity. 'What is it to be a black man?' is an interesting question that we're still faced with. But our hope is that it helps us address the issue of cultural competency and unconscious bias."

As I get ready to wrap things up with Jacobs in Brookhill Village, his eye catches a sheet of yellowed paper sticking out from the doorway of a nearby unit. There's a small plastic scooter on its side in the front yard of the residence, but other than that, it's clear it hasn't been a residence in recent months.

Jacobs walks up to the door and pulls out the eviction notice. It's dated May. The people living in the unit have long since left.

"This is what it all comes down to," Jacobs says before folding the paper up and taking it with him. He plans to add it to the exhibit at some point.

click to enlarge Jacobs holds an eviction notice placed in the door of a Brookhill Village home in May. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)
  • Jacobs holds an eviction notice placed in the door of a Brookhill Village home in May. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

It's been an incredible few years for Jacobs, who first gained attention around Charlotte for his photography when he stopped focusing on fashion and began hitting the streets to document protests and other direct actions against injustice. He was inspired to do so by his experience in Florida, where he was attending the NBA All-Star Game at the time Trayvon Martin was killed.

After shooting photos of reactions to Martin's killing, he changed his whole focus. He's since covered large-scale protests in Ferguson, Missouri; Chicago; Charlottesville; and the Charlotte Uprising in 2016, among other places.

He's also begun to spread his wings elsewhere, serving as a team photographer for the Carolina Panthers, touring with Jay-Z and Vic Mensa and earning a number of other opportunities that photographers of all stripes only dream of.

His work is still a large part of the Know Justice Know Peace exhibit at the Levine Museum of the New South, meaning he's currently a featured artist in two of the largest art institutions in a city not exactly known for its culture.

For an image activist who simply showed up at protests with a mission to record the truth and prided himself on complete autonomy as an artist and documentarian, he's come a long way in a short time.

He says the success has come from simply "doing the work because it needed to be done," without worrying about whether mainstream media outlets, gatekeepers of the cultural scene or anybody else was interested in what he was doing.

That's a message he hopes to pass along at the exhibition preview party he will speak at on Friday night.

"I want you to know that you can look just like me, and you can do this. It's not some guy from someplace else. You know me. You've been knowing me. You've seen how I came up in this city. If I can do this, you can do this, but this is how you have to do it," he says, referencing his tireless work ethic.

As for the continuing work around Brookhill Village, it's something that he says has become a part of him. And it's clear as we stand together under a tree on Village Court that it's not something that will he will leave — or will leave him — anytime soon.

click to enlarge A photo from the 'Welcome to Brookhill' exhibit. (Photo by Alvin C. Jacobs Jr.)
  • A photo from the 'Welcome to Brookhill' exhibit. (Photo by Alvin C. Jacobs Jr.)

"The passion behind the story of these people is what gets me out of bed in the morning," he says. "I have shot professional sports and major concerts and fashion events and editorials and the like, but there's something about someone trusting you personally to not only capture their likeness through a photograph, but also telling the story that, if given the opportunity, they would do so themselves.

"This was difficult and different, because it wasn't just a photojournalistic standpoint," he continues. "These are my friends, so I had to take care of them, their reputations, their homes, their community, their neighborhood."

But in the end, it's Charlotte's neighborhood, and Welcome to Brookhill is an attempt to get folks to admit it.

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