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Art exhibit at Johnson C. Smith University aims to unite west Charlotte

Katrina Cherry (left), Bunny Gregory (middle,) and Hoan Rahlan, (right) are in front of three large portraits of Nina Simone that will be on display at The Johnson C. Smith University Art Factory.
Elvis Menayese
/
WFAE
Katrina Cherry (left), Bunny Gregory (middle) and Hoan Rahlan (right) are in front of three large portraits of Nina Simone that will be on display at the Johnson C. Smith University Art Factory.

Growing up in west Charlotte wasn’t easy for Bunny Gregory as a victim of verbal, mental and sexual abuse. Art saved her life.

“It was an escape like I could literally close my room, my door, and paint and draw, and build stuff,” said Gregory. “I’m going to say, it probably kept me from killing somebody or even myself.”

Now Gregory and other local artists in the community have collaborated to produce “Common,” an art exhibit that aims to unite people who have been overlooked and undermined. Another artist, Katrina Cherry also grew up in west Charlotte and suffered from mental and physical abuse. For both women, art is a way to change their narrative.

“Our goal is to bring people together on the west side, and just different sides of Charlotte that have been gentrified or have been oppressed, or just neglected,” Cherry said. “They don’t have like a positive outlet or they’re not aware that there are people out here on their side of town that are thinking about them.”

Inside the Johnson C. Smith University Arts Factory lobby, the artists' portraits and paintings are displayed. When viewing their work, it’s evident to see where some of the pair’s inspiration, strength, and courage to subdue the oppression they’ve experienced filters from. As you walk down one of the halls, there are three large portraits ofNina Simone hanging side by side. Simone was a 1960s jazz singer, songwriter and civil rights activist who grew up in Tryon, North Carolina — and she was also a victim of abuse.

In Cherry’s portrait of Simone, the activist is deep in thought with a piece of chain wrapped around her finger. The portrait is a 3D painting that allows people to touch and fiddle with the loosely fitted chains.

A three-dimensional portrait of Nina Simone with chains wrapped from her neck to her hands.
Elvis Menayese
/
WFAE
A 3D portrait of Nina Simone with chains wrapped from her neck to her hands.

Cherry says she can relate to Simone, who was often pictured as very thoughtful and at times, not smiling.

“A lot of people will look at my face and they see that I don’t [smile] and say, ‘why don’t you smile,’” she said. “Or you know, ‘you look upset’ or something like that and I just identify with her expressions. It’s more so just having things on your mind.”

Cherry’s paintings: “Artist Mind” (left) “BLK Panthers” (middle) and “Reflect” (right) all give a glimpse into her life.
Elvis Menayese
/
WFAE
Cherry’s paintings: “Artist Mind” (left) “BLK Panthers” (middle) and “Reflect” (right) all give a glimpse into her life.

Another artist, Hoan Rahlan, shared how she also turned to art to deal with the oppression she faced.

“I feel like I go through a lot of mental abuse, and physical abuse … in the community and family-wise,” she said. “That’s why I chose art to express myself through my artwork when I feel like I don’t have freedom of speech, like vocally, I would express myself through my paintings.”

Rahlan is part of the Jarai tribe, an indigenous ethnic group found in the mountains of Vietnam. Her oil and canvas portrait “Lost and Bound” offers a glimpse into her culture. The painting represents Rahlan reflecting on her bond to her loved ones that, at times, balances on a thin line due to her devotion to her art.

Rahlan corned in front of her portrait “Lost & Bound” which portrays herself, her two-year-old son, and her husband.
Elvis Menayese
/
WFAE
Rahlan corned in front of her portrait “Lost & Bound” which portrays herself, her two-year-old son, and her husband.

The three ladies and Helms Jarrell, an artist and the event organizer, are part of the 11-week community engagement program. The initiative birthed by QC Family Tree’s Culture Bearer Residency connects community members to the arts and advocates for social change within West Charlotte.

Their work, consisting of 40 pieces of art, will be on display at the JCSU Arts Factory until mid-November. For Gregory, the diverse nature of the group and paintings represent what west Charlotte and the community are all about.

“We don’t all have to be the same, we don’t have to all think the same, we don’t all have to have the same political views or the same religions,” said Gregory. “We can still work together and make stuff better.”

The exhibition is free to attend and located at 1545 West Trade Street.

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Elvis Menayese is a Report for America corps member covering issues involving race and equity for WFAE. He previously was a member of the Queens University News Service. Major support for WFAE's Race & Equity Team comes from Novant Health.