Durham artist exhibit examines America’s dark slave history

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WNCN) — Real. Disturbing. Honest. Enslaved. They are the faces of those who may come after them. The ones who suffered hundreds of years for them.

“I stripped all of my models down to their underwear as though the people were stripped down and put on the ships and I ended up casting their bodies so basically I was the captain of these people bodies for over an hour where they didn’t have any say over their bodies,” explained artist Stephen Hayes. 

His use of cement, steel, and wood takes you into the slave ship and forces you to come face to face, 400 years later, with the eyes that saw some of the ugliest of mankind.

“I think it is a great way to bring communities together to talk about the ways in which we’ve progressed in the past 400 years and the ways we haven’t,” said Kathryn Wagner with UNC’s Arts Everywhere.  

There are 15 statues each representing one million of the 15 million estimated enslaved.

They sit on display just blocks away from where another statue stood. The confederate memorial Silent Sam stands no more at UNC. It was torn down by the angry and is now in limbo in a secret place. 

The exhibit is called “Cash Crop”  and is meant to make you think and hopefully make you talk.

“When somebody hits that chain it makes that noise it also asks us the question are we still stumbling over the past,” said Hayes as he used his foot to move the chains attached to each statue.  

The chains are also linked to another symbol of what also inspired Haye’s work. The sweatshops and child labor of today.  

On the back of each statue are a ship and the common configuration of how slaves were laid out. 

Art is a powerful thing. Often you just have to let it do what it can do.

“Office solace, offers healing offer some perspective even, a chance to be in the space and be silent and be reflective I think is pretty spectacular,” said Wagner. 

Stephen Hayes teaches sculpture and drawing at Duke University. Cash Crop is now on display at 109 East Franklin St. in Chapel Hill. 

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