Winston-Salem artist Owens Daniels has been serving as Reynolda House Museum’s art and community engagement fellow since late August. His fellowship runs until Feb. 23, 2022. On Nov. 13 and 20 he will lead a two-part creative portraiture workshop inspired by the museum’s future exhibition, Black is Beautiful. Visit Reynolda’s website for more info. Daniels has worked with TCB in the past.

What are your primary responsibilities as the art and community engagement fellow and had you worked with Reynolda House prior to this?

Well, I’ve been tasked with community engagement and Reynolda wants to reach past Reynolda Road into areas such as [Highway] 52, such as downtown Winston-Salem. The museum wants to get past this vision that Reynolda is some kind of area that very few people go to. They want more people to get engaged.

So, I’ve been working with the Big Brother and Big Sister program and other social services. I’m also working with Winston-Salem State University to coordinate internships with students. I’m trying to add more variety to the standard variety that they had. And I had been nothing but an admirer and a patron before this.

As a Black artist working at a historically white institution, what has that been like?

It has been an interesting turn of events. When I took on this fellowship, two things happened. I had to find out what expectations Reynolda had of me, and I had to figure out what expectations I had for myself.

You’re right in that Reynolda is a predominantly white institution in a white neighborhood in a white community down to even a white house. But they’re also very committed to the engagement of inviting and having offerings for other cultures as well and they want to get outside of this idea that it’s just a place that white people walk or live and they have their own life and you have yours.

Part of what I’m trying to do is look at some of the history of the museum. They used to have servants here at Reynolda at Five Row; that’s where they lived. It was not a big community like Happy Hills. It was only limited to the servants and their children that worked in Reynolda. They were all Black and it was where your cooks, where your people who worked in the stables would live.

I’m the first Black fellowship they’ve had there, so I’m very aware of the legacy of the servants that worked here and some of the perception of the Black community being here. So when I came in, I had to define what kind of relationship I’m going to have. Like instead of walking the houses as servants, I would in there as an equal. And I’m doing that by going back to getting in community engagement. I’m reaching out to predominantly minority organizations that help the Black families. It may not be a big step. but it’s something different to offer.

Daniels gives a talk at Reynolda. (photo by Aaron Canipe, Reynolda House Museum of American Art)

You’re well known in the community for your photography. You’re also giving two talks on portraiture later this month. What’s something you want people to know about photography, particularly work by Black artists?

Because of the Black is Beautiful exhibit, they approached me and asked if I would be interested in putting on two portraiture workshops. These will include how to light the Black figure — which is a little different than lighting other people — the lighting, the background, all those things. If you’ve looked at older Ebony magazines or Essence, they’re different than Vogue.

That’s because the Black figure being black, we absorb light and the tendency that I’ve seen with not understanding the different tones is to overlight, to expose our skin and overexpose it. Then the subtle differences that you would see in our skin tones is totally erased.

I’ve seen people be overprocessed so we look almost plastic, like we’re models. That’s what I want to get away from. It’s about How do you make black people look beautiful? Well, you light them correctly and then you post-process them correctly and pose them differently too.

Ever since the events last year when Breonna Taylor and George Floyd were killed, institutions have been working to be more inclusive. Have you seen that in the Winston-Salem art scene?

The art scene including at Reynolda hasn’t changed that much to that degree. There just has not been a lot from the Black community coming forward to present themselves in a measurable way. The artists are there, but they’re not coming forward in a way to form a movement like cubism is a movement.

However, I’ve seen organizations like SECCA and Reynolda taking that first step forward to say, ‘Hey, if you’re willing to take that step towards me, we’re willing to take that step towards you.’ But we need more people taking that first step, and that’s where people like me come forward so I can make those connections.

What are some future plans for your work?

I’m envisioning myself doing more installation work. I’m interested in the COVID vaccine and the Black community’s reaction to that and why we have the lowest vaccine rate and what does that look like visually.

I want to do a large exhibition of Black people with a mask getting their shot and having them tell that story. Asking them, ‘Why do you feel this way?’ or, ‘Why don’t you want your kid to get vaccinated?’ or, ‘Why do you?’

It’s about this thing about the fear and why we have this fear and I want to do something visual, to create something from an artist perspective.

All of these stories from Tuskegee have been passed along to us for generations and that fear is dominant, particularly in Black men. So I want that conversation a little more out in the open so you can air out your laundry; I think that would be really helpful for us.

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