She sits rather than stands atop the concrete slab, the heel of her left foot planted firmly on the surface while her right leg dangles off the side. She leans back, her long skirt opening ever so slightly and she gives off an air of ease, a sense of superiority over the space like she belongs there, like she is claiming the plinth. She wears all black, mostly lace; the only other color is a crown of deep red roses that adorn her head. She looks out at the viewer, her gaze more akin to a stare, one that challenges and commands respect.
Fuck with me, I dare you: That’s the vibe.
Artist and activist April Parker likes to tell people that she’s not from the South, but that she’s of the South.
“I’m from New Jersey, but my entire adult life has been spent in the South,” she says. “My people were sharecroppers; I’m from red-clay land.”
Parker’s Southern roots weave a thread throughout her latest work, Unveiling Monuments, which will be shown in multiple formats starting Friday.
A series of portraits for the project includes shots of Parker standing on top of the base of the Confederate monument that was toppled in Green Hill Cemetery this past July.
As she looked back on her work from this past summer, which included street protests and funerary processions, Parker reflected on a piece by poet Caroline Randall Williams published in the New York Times in June. The work, titled, “You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body is a Confederate Monument,” starts with a single, stunning line: “I have rape-colored skin.”
According to Parker, two white male relatives on her grandmother’s side of the family were a part of the Confederacy.
“I definitely have rape-colored skin,” she says. “It speaks to how my blood is in the Confederacy, but it also honors the fact that it was toppled and how monuments have been such a conversation around the South and how to continue that conversation.”
Parker has been working at the intersection of art and activism for the past decade. She helped found Greensboro’s Black Lives Matter group and Queer People of Color Collective in 2014, before anyone really knew what the movement looked like.
“We had to convince people and explain to them what ‘Black Lives Matter’ meant,” she says. “I was really rage filled.”
After taking a few years to rest, the radical librarian, as she calls herself, returned to the streets this summer, bringing with her a renewed energy and focus to the work. She launched multiple projects and initiatives in conjunction with Elsewhere as its creative catalyst fellow, including this latest series.
While the project is titled Unveiling Monuments, Parker uses the term broadly, applying it to anything that holds historical or cultural significance.
She points out images of an empty brick storefront in downtown Greensboro, which used to be a Black-owned saloon. According to a 2017 article by the News & Record, the Cascade Saloon was owned by Wiley and Ida Weaver in the midst of a booming, predominantly white downtown. Warnersville, a few blocks away, however, existed as a thriving Black community with schools and Black businesses. All of it was virtually destroyed in the 1960s due to redlining and racist housing practices.
“I am defining who gets honored, who’s story gets told,” Parker explains. “So, when I think of monuments, it really is by definition. But what if the structure is no longer there or no longer functions? A monument can be something that is placed over a memory, like a grave.”
In addition to honoring locations with significance to the Black community like the Beloved Community Center and the Historic Magnolia House, Parker made sure to center Black women and femmes in her work.
“I wanted Black women and femmes to be held and honored through the eye,” Parker says. “It was about showing Black women as pillars in our community…. This is the coven.”
In the series of portraits outside of the saloon, Parker honors Ingram Bell, the program director of Cure Violence, a community-led initiative that tackles gun violence as a public health problem. In different photos, Parker gathers organizers, academics and activists as they stand on the porch at Magnolia House or in the street at the Black Lives Matter mural downtown. She also took images at the A&T Four statue on the college’s campus as well as the Nathanael Greene piece downtown. She points out to viewers how both were made by James Barnhill, a white man, just a few years apart in the mid 2000s.
“It’s really a critique on white creators,” she says. “Whiteness doesn’t have to be responsible. If you are a creator, sculptor, artist, what are you about other than this capitalism? You’re not honoring Blackness…. That is the paradox of where we are as a city. We can’t do emotional and intellectual gymnastics to avoid looking at the violence of white supremacy. You just have to name it what it is.”
And that’s something she’s pushing Elsewhere, a historically white arts institution, as well as the greater Greensboro community, to do, too. It’s not always about shining a light on the Black creatives and individuals, Parker says. It’s about shifting the narrative and making sure to understand where the roots of oppression come from. Currently, she says she’s working on relearning the names of powerful Black figures in Greensboro’s past and thinking critically about how most of the city’s streets are named after white people.
“All of these things that I’m unveiling are in plain sight,” she says. “We don’t have curiosity about these things. Where is the outrage?… It’s really trying to highlight local Black history and make those connections and applying it to our present day.”
In another image from the Confederate monument series, Parker holds a large key in one hand while cradling a crystal ball in the other. She says the key represents the key to Gate City while the crystal ball is a fortune for the community.
“I feel like Black folks hold the key to the real solutions,” she says. “It’s to say, ‘Black people are in your future.’”