Combining Art And Social Justice At SouthEnd ARTS
A couple years ago, K. Liles joined a book club that did more than provide a social outlet and a reading list.
“It changed my life,” she said.
The book Liles and her group read was “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander. It explores America’s mass incarceration system, in which millions of African Americans have been “locked behind bars and then relegated to a permanent second-class status.”
“If you haven’t read it, it might set your world on edge,” Liles said recently.
At the end of the six-week gathering to discuss the book, the leader, Patrice Funderburg, asked everyone who had attended to think about what they could do as individuals to ignite change in the world.
Liles thought about how she and her family have been involved in art for their entire lives. She considered how the Charlotte Art League had recently lost its studio space in South End because of gentrification and that more than 100 artists lost exhibition and studio space.
And she decided to do something about it – while always keeping the concept of social justice as a cornerstone.
The kickstart from the book club led to Liles forming SouthEnd ARTS in 2018. It began as a studio and gallery space in Morningstar Storage, quickly moved to Triple C Brewing and then to breweries throughout South End, before landing at the Charlotte Trolley Powerhouse on Camden Road.
Through a grant from the Arts and Science Council, SouthEnd ARTS sought to “promote the nexus point between social justice and art-making.”
That meant at each monthly art exhibition, there is also a social justice speaker.
Though the exhibits are never themed, each speaker has a focus on some element of justice: “social justice and life lessons” or “social justice and women” or “social justice and housing.”
It has become the “the jewel in our crown,” according to Liles.
“I believe that the arts is the perfect place to talk about difficult subjects -- in the safety of the arts,” she said.
So at that first show, the artists drew their crowds and the social justice speaker drew their own following, and the two combined to pack the South End space “and it was just magic. It was magic. Barriers were broken down. People just talked to each other.”
Liles sees the mission of SouthEnd ARTS as highlighting the power of art to shine a light on societal issues and themes, encouraging self-reflection and action.
“A lot of people in Charlotte, especially media people, want it to be either an art organization or a social justice organization,” Liles said. “But I see it as both.”
It seemed like the perfect combination this year when George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police officers and sparked nationwide protests against systemic racism. SouthEnd ARTS already had a system for discussing these difficult subjects, and spotlighting minority artists.
In its Oct. 2 virtual exhibition, “Justice,” SouthEnd ARTS featured Charlotte artist Tommie Robinson discussing how he helps guide young artists. It included features on several local artists, telling their stories and what drives them to create. It was broadcast on Facebook Live, IGTV and YouTube because COVID-19 limited in-person gatherings.
But Liles is careful to explain that SouthEnd ARTS was simply doing what it has done for the past two years, not capitalizing on a sudden desire to support Black businesses or artists in the wake of protests this year.
“I think the Black community is very cautious of people that are picking it up and trying to make it their cause after ignoring it for so long,” she said. “We've had this focus for two years. And the Black community has been a part of every bit of our programming.”
But it’s all just the start for SouthEnd ARTS, according to Liles. They have plans to move into a new space when in-person exhibits are permitted again, and they’re working on a new Feb. 5, 2021 virtual “Justice” exhibit.
“We'd like to see it grow into a movement,” Liles said. “A movement balanced with art -- and art becomes the tag to draw people into the movement.”
This story originally appeared in WFAE's weekly arts and entertainment email newsletter, Tapestry. Subscribe here.