This is the second installment of a series of articles on cultural preservation in Western North Carolina. Look for additional stories in coming weeks.
“It was like Africa spoke through it all,” said Valeria Watson-Doost, of Leicester, recalling the work she and 30 other black Appalachian-area artists created for the Affrilachian Artist Project, an ongoing collaboration launched in Pittsburgh last November.
“Whether it was in the way we did patchwork, fiber arts, ceramics, sculpture, paints or oils, there was this need to somehow validate ourselves and our history — that we are here, our grandparents were here, and our great-grandparents were here,” she said.
The term Affrilachian was coined 20 years ago to describe the culture of African Americans living in the region, which stretches from southern New York to northern Georgia. In the early 1990s, Frank X. Walker and fellow poets in Lexington, Ky., began speaking and performing about African Americans being excluded from Appalachian history, something they and other Affrilachian artists are intent on changing.
Artworks by Watson-Doost and by found-object sculptor and spoken-word performer DeWayne “B-Love” Barton, of Asheville, were on display at the project’s inaugural exhibition, “Common Ground: Affrilachia! Where I’m From,” held at Pittsburgh’s August Wilson Center for African American Culture last November through March.
Artist and educator Marie T. Cochran, then a visiting instructor at Western Carolina University, curated the show, which featured artists from across the Appalachian region and received positive reviews.
That show, Cochran said, set the stage for “talking much more about the changing face of America” and the parts of black history that are rooted in the mountains.
Artists active in their communities chosen
The project has focused on artists who are engaged in their communities and social activism.
“My goal is to use this as a platform for artists to be able to connect throughout the region, and to say that not only do we exist but also speak to some of the interests we have related to being in the mountain area, whether it’s mountain-top removal or interests that may relate to racism in these remote areas,” Cochran said.
“The whole idea is to make a significant impact on our communities, both locally and globally.”
Watson-Doost, who had a career in Hollywood as a costume designer and became a Yoruba priestess on one of her many trips to Africa, started working with Asheville Sister Cities in 2006. Her efforts led to Asheville and Osogbo, Nigeria, becoming sister cities two years later.
Barton, who is self-taught, founded and leads Green Opportunities, an environmentally conscious building training program for young adults.
Barton was born in Asheville and grew up in Washington, D.C. A Desert Storm veteran, after his military service, he discovered art as a therapeutic release. He began creating sculptures from found objects like driftwood or garbage, which are now displayed at Creative Ambitions, his extensive outdoor gallery behind his West Asheville home.
“I use garbage to make sculptures to talk about social change and purpose,” he said.
His work “Is Our Water Safe?” — a tubular slide filled with found water coolers and bottles — snakes down the slope of his backyard beside portraits of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
The biggest reward of his art, he said, is inspiring young visitors with the wonderland in his backyard. “We have young kids come in and their eyes pop, their eyes light up and they get it. And they say, ‘This is what it means to me and this is what it can change.’”
In creating another work, “New Religion,” for the Affrilachian Artist Project, Barton meticulously layered thousands of found objects in a coffin-like cross. His environmental concerns shaped the art.
“We always talk about environmental technology, but we don’t talk about our patterns of consumption and waste and destruction,” he said. He pointed to the Santa Clauses at the base of the sculpture’s large cross. “Santa Claus is the consumption god,” he said. If the world ended and the cross was buried, he said, the Santa Clauses would be the soldiers protecting the tombs, like in Egypt. “That’s what Santa Claus represents, that security of that consumption,” he said.
Watson-Doost contributed “Hillboogie,” an acrylic mixed-media work, to the Affrilachian Artist Project exhibition. She works in a stream of conscious manner, piecing together fragments of her history with lush color. “Hillboogie” features a nude self-portrait, beads, a Barbie doll and images of family members, from her parents to the Scottish immigrants who bought her great-great-grandfather “Pap” in North Carolina and then took him and his wife, Melinda, to Texas to work on a land grant farm.
“My art, I feel, is feminist, it’s social activist, and it steps out of all other kind of stereotypical black art,” she said last week in her studio in Asheville’s River Arts District.
For a series based on the seven female orishas, or spirits in the Yoruba faith, Watson-Doost safety pins bras and fabrics from her costuming collection onto large, draped dresses. The orisha series will be part of her collaborative exhibition at UNC-Asheville in March.
Watson-Doost calls her artwork and performance art “inter-dimensional.”
“There’s all of these small stories going on,” she explained. “It always has some kind of message, this positive, transformative hope for humanity. And love. Always love.”
More Affrilachian exhibitions in the works
Cochran hails from rural Georgia, where, she said, she grew up loving and identifying with “The Waltons” as much as “Good Times.” A former art faculty member at Western Carolina University, she has a solo show coming up at WCU’s Fine Art Museum on Feb. 21.
The Pittsburgh show was phase one of the Affrilachian Artist Project. A traveling exhibition of Affrilachian art is now in the works, Cochran said.
Barton, Cochran and Watson-Doost all said opportunities for Affrilachian artists in WNC need to increase.
Local craft guilds and galleries should become more inclusive and encouraging of African-American artists, Watson-Doost said. “There has to be something set up where, OK, let’s include this sector. Let’s go find them. Where are they? Let’s help them,” she said.
“We’re not economically equal,” she said of black artists in general. “We haven’t had 400 years of putting money in the bank. We don’t have those social connections. So those are the things that we need help with: how to get our stuff in front of the people who have the money to buy.”
That process, Watson-Doost said, could change how Affrilachian artists work.
“I am looking forward to the day when what we do is not a protest about being left out,” she said.