On the second floor of Witherspoon Student Center, Black faces fill the walls of the African American Cultural Center (AACC) gallery. Bright acrylic and oil paintings on large canvases alongside overlaid photographs and digital paintings work together to create scenes of joy, connection and reflection.
The Kurudi Nyumbani alumni art exhibit, open through Dec. 3, addresses what home means to Black individuals and communities. Kurudi Nyumbani translates from Swahili to “the return home” and is part of the AACC’s yearlong celebration of 30 years of having a home in Witherspoon. The gallery features the work of four alumni artists: Robyn Bess, Jason Franklin, Britney Symone and J Stacy Utley.
The exhibit opened during Red and White Week. According to Isaiah Lucas, program coordinator for the AACC, it’s important to intentionally create spaces for Black students during homecoming in predominantly white institutions such as NC State. To this end, the AACC chose to display alumni art that centralized the Black experience.
“Being able to walk into a space where you know that every piece of artwork on the wall was made by someone who looks like you, who may think like you, who may have came from a similar upbringing as you, that creates a sense of home, a sense of belonging for our students and our community,” Lucas said.
Robyn Bess is a portrait photographer who graduated from NC State in 2020 with a degree in communication. The exhibit features her series “The Art of Isolation,” which depicts the complex struggle of isolation brought on by the pandemic. The series includes both film and digital photographs, most of which are portraits of individuals, uniquely edited and overlaid.
Bess finds home in her artwork through representation.
“Being a dark-skinned Black woman, the people that are in my pieces, they’re also dark-skinned,” Bess said. “It feels close to home, because I feel like parts of me are represented. That's really why I started [photography], to make sure that I felt seen as a dark skinned person. Colorism is a thing, but there's so much beauty in Blackness and in people of my complexion.”
Jason Franklin graduated NC State in 1992 with a BS in mathematics education and in 1997 with a master’s degree in industrial design. He is an art professor at Shaw University and currently serves as the executive director and co-owner of the Triangle Cultural Arts Gallery.
Franklin’s colorful acrylic and oil paintings surround the room with smiling faces. Franklin includes stars and stripes in several of his pieces, tying themes of America, Blackness and belonging together into one.
Britney Symoneis a digital artist who graduated from NC State in 2019 with a degree in graphic design. Symone’s work in the exhibit focuses on Black womanhood and depicts soft faces that are accented in silver and gold. One of Symone’s pieces in the exhibit, “Let Black Women Be Soft, 2018,” represents a point of evolution in her artistic narrative towards depicting Black vulnerability.
On her website, Symone writes that “‘Let Black Women Be Soft’ comments on the stereotypes that women of color are faced with, challenging the idea that they cannot be soft, emotional and delicate while standing strong in those traits.”
J Stacy Utley graduated from NC State in 2001 with a bachelor’s degree in architecture. He works in several mediums to create art that explores the complexities of the African American diaspora. His work featured in the exhibit focuses on the Black communities in Charlotte’s Historic West End, where Utley is in the process of finishing a sculptural installation that honors the past and present stories within the community. He incorporates his architectural background into his work to depict a sense of home and history through place.
“We want to celebrate the power when Black people are home,” Lucas said. “We want to celebrate the power of Black people creating home, to celebrate the power of Black people returning home.”
The Kurudi Nyumbani exhibit is open to the public Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Dec. 3.