Published: Tuesday, August 23, 2011
The North Carolina Central University Art Museum is proud to welcome artist and alumnus Stephen Hayes, who returns to Durham with a moving sculpture exhibit that is receiving critical acclaim in the art world.
“Cash Crop” is the title of the work that reflects one the most tragic ordeals in human history: the cruel and terrifying journey of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean. Through cement sculptures of 15 men, women, and children, Hayes vividly recounts the nearly four centuries of the slave trade in which millions of Africans were torn from their homeland, herded onto ships and dispersed across the new world.
Museum Director Kenneth Rodgers describes the exhibit as a powerful, provocative narrative. It is especially stirring because of the life-sized scale of the sculptures, which are shackled at their feet and bound by chains.
“Stephen Hayes presents an unsettling portrayal of a dark chapter in American and African American history,” Rodgers said. “With searing eloquence, he tells the story of this horrific diaspora in 15 extraordinary cement sculptures of men, women and children.”
“Cash Crop” premiered at the Mason Murer Fine Art Gallery in Atlanta last year, at the same time Hayes was completing his Master of Fine Arts degree from the Savannah College of Art and Design in Atlanta. The exhibit marked the first time the gallery showcased a student’s work.
Hayes worked on the piece for five months in the basement of SCAD. He used 14 of his friends and family members as models, draping them from head to toe in plaster gauze to create a full body mold. The 15th figure is Hayes himself. The molds were filled with cement and allowed to dry for 24 hours. Next, Hayes carved each slave ship, working until his fingers bled.
The result made the art community take notice. After the exhibit opened, Atlanta Journal-Constitution art critic wrote, “Hayes has demonstrated an ambitious vision and the ability to manipulate space, scale and detail to realize it. Bravo, Mr. Hayes. We’ll be watching you.” Art blogs have been dedicated to the piece and YouTube videos of “Cash Crop” pop up regularly. Hayes and his work were featured in a spot on the Atlanta ABC affiliate, WSB-TV, and he appeared on CNN with weekend morning host T.J. Holmes.
While he appreciates the acclaim, Hayes said it’s the visceral response by those who see it that is most meaningful to him.
“It changed my idea about what art is and how people view art,” he said. “It feels good just to see people experience it. Their reactions have definitely amazed me. People cry, they tell me it’s beautiful and it’s horrible at the same time.”
A Durham native, Hayes graduated from NCCU in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in visual arts. He’s young, yet he already displays a style and technical mastery usually found in more experienced artists.
“Since his student days, Stephen Hayes has demonstrated what can be accomplished with hard work and perseverance,” Rodgers said. “It is no surprise that he has created an extraordinary body of work in just a few short years.”
“Cash Crop” is scheduled to show in other venues around the Southeast as the buzz about Hayes builds. But Hayes takes it all in stride.
“I don’t consider myself an artist because, right now, art is more conceptual,” he said. “I think you have to make art for the everyday person, and not just for other artists. I want my art to speak to people.”
WHAT: “Cash Crop” by Stephen Hayes
WHERE: NCCU Art Museum, 580 E. Lawson St., Durham, N.C.
WHEN: Opening reception from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 28. Exhibit runs through Oct. 30.
HOURS: 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday. The museum is closed on Mondays and state holidays.