More than two years ago, Charlotte artist Kyle Mosher gave a lecture about fine art and commercial art at Elder Gallery of Contemporary Art. He explained how traditional exhibits limited the viewers’ experience.

“There was a complete disconnect between the artist (and) the art,” said Mosher, 35. “I wanted it to be more of an experience.”

About a year ago, Mosher pursued the concept of a nontraditional exhibit with Sonya Pfeiffer, owner of Elder Gallery and a civil rights attorney in Charlotte. Pfeiffer supported Mosher’s concept, but the pandemic and the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police sparked an idea.

Mosher asked himself, “How can I use this platform and this experience to really push the boundaries into something that would have meaning and substance and touch on, rather than shy away from, what was happening in the world?”

He enlisted five artists of color to be part of the project: Carla Aaron-Lopez (aka kingcarla,) Benjamin Moore (aka Fart.PDF,) Kiana Mui, Dammit Wesley and Will Jenkins (aka Sir Will).

Almost immediately, Wesley imagined an exhibit called “Off the Plantation” in the gallery space. It would be about breaking boundaries and pushing what it means to make Black art in a traditionally white space, said Mosher.

The group of artists has served as curators and designers for the two-part exhibit. “Off the Plantation, Part 1” sold out in October. “Off the Plantation: The Emancipation” is set for May 1 at Elder Gallery.

“Offline_TREX” by the local artist known as fart.pdf is in “Off the Plantation: The Emancipation” exhibit at Elder Gallery of Contemporary Art.

Disrupting spaces

The visual and performance-based exhibit features works by Aaron-Lopez, Moore, Mosher, Mui, Wesley and Jenkins, artists known for challenging art world norms and bucking societal expectations.

“The whole idea behind this two-part exhibition is to shift power and control to artists,” said Pfeiffer.

Aaron-Lopez argues that we still live on the plantation. It may be a bank or office, but the dynamics haven’t changed.

“Your job is not that freeing,” she said. “You (Black men and women) will get paid less than your counterparts, yet you work in the same department. You are still on the plantation. If that is always going to be the case, then I’m going to celebrate like a field slave after Juneteenth.”

In “Off the Plantation, Part 1”, each artist dressed in a traditional role on a plantation. Depending on the artist’s creativity and interest, the character was contemporary or historical.

Wesley created a live performance piece where he stood on a soapbox with a noose made of chain links around his neck. Visitors could pay $1 per link to “purchase his freedom” off the plantation.

The second part of the exhibition moves on to emancipation, tearing down the plantation. Aaron-Lopez says it’s a showcase of Blackness and Black culture and will not follow the mainstream art the Western world has deemed worthy of an exhibit.

“I do enjoy disrupting spaces,” she said. “I do enjoy challenging people’s thoughts. And I do enjoy making artwork that forces you to think differently about what you’ve been told and what you’ve been taught.”

This piece was part of “Off the Plantation, Part 1” at Elder Gallery. It featured Ty Exotic, a character developed by artist Will Jenkins, seen here.

This piece was part of “Off the Plantation, Part 1” at Elder Gallery. It featured Ty Exotic, a character developed by artist Will Jenkins, seen here.

In “Off the Plantation: The Emancipation,” Moore will explore the idea that Blacks were the first robots.

“I will juxtapose labor and programmed operation/efficiency with our daily relationship to tech across several mediums: large canvases, puzzles, as well as a still life,” he said.

A social justice platform

Aaron-Lopez teaches art at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Whitewater Middle School; it’s her sixth year there. She’s also part of BLKMRKTCLT, a working studio and a space for young Black creatives in Camp North End. Jenkins and Wesley own the artist collective.

A Charlotte native, Aaron-Lopez said she hasn’t shown her art in a gallery in more than 10 years because most people of color don’t feel comfortable walking into traditional institutions. The contrived and controlled environment is overly privileged, she said.

These are the artists and the gallery owner behind the “Off the Plantation” exhibits at Elder Gallery of Contemporary Art. Standing (L to R) are gallery owner Sonya Pfeiffer and artists Will Jenkins, Benjamin Moore, Dammit Wesley and Carla Aaron-Lopez. Kneeling are artists Kyle Mosher and Kiana Mui.

These are the artists and the gallery owner behind the “Off the Plantation” exhibits at Elder Gallery of Contemporary Art. Standing (L to R) are gallery owner Sonya Pfeiffer and artists Will Jenkins, Benjamin Moore, Dammit Wesley and Carla Aaron-Lopez. Kneeling are artists Kyle Mosher and Kiana Mui.

“I don’t like galleries,” Aaron-Lopez said. “I am a fan of what’s on the street and what’s on the ground.”

She agreed to be part of “Off the Plantation” because it offered an opportunity to do something she’s never seen in a Charlotte gallery or institution.

“(I get to) take a part of my culture, as a Black resident of Charlotte, and put it at the center of a notoriously well-known whitewashed space,” Aaron-Lopez said. “I think Sonya really wants to be one of the people who demonstrates and illustrates the diversity of Charlotte’s arts culture.

Planning “Off the Plantation” was a chance to highlight Black culture in a traditional setting like Elder Gallery.

“Sonya is giving us the opportunity to Black out a space,” Aaron-Lopez. said. “When you go into galleries, they are very whitewashed and centered around white people. I do not feel comfortable in those spaces. People of color are often judged if they don’t bend to whatever the mainstream culture dictates for that space.”

“Off the Plantation: The Emancipation”

What: An experience and performance-based exhibit featuring the works of Carla Aaron-Lopez, Benjamin Moore, Kyle Mosher, Kiana Mui, Dammit Wesley and Will Jenkins.

When: May 1, noon to 5 p.m.

Where: Elder Gallery of Contemporary Art, 1520 S. Tryon St., Charlotte

Cost: Free. Reservations required due to COVID-19 regulations. Entries limited to maintain social distancing and masks are required.

Details: eldergalleryclt.com

This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.

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