Stephen Hayes exhibition in Durham, NC

Ella West Gallery (Durham, NC) presents Stephen Hayes: Reclaiming the Discarded, an exhibition of the artist’s ruminations on capitalism and consumerism across sculptures, wall reliefs, and textiles. Notions of cultural capital are reoriented through a modern lens in Hayes’ larger than life interrogations of the gaudy, shimmering, and resplendent, through a wide range of media including bullet shell casings, raw cotton buds, stone, twine, and bronze.

The exhibition is on view through Saturday, April 6, 2024. 

Hayes, a Duke University art professor who lives in Durham, began his craftsmanship journey when he was in only first grade. After watching his brother repair a remote-control car, Hayes developed a fascination with building, tinkering, reconfiguring, and reimagining, finding scraps of material to transform into his own unique creations.

From the workbench his mother built in their home, to the workshops and studios at North Carolina Central University and Savannah College of Art and Design, Hayes’ work embodies themes that touch on the deep historical threads of the transatlantic slave trade and reshape cultural perceptions of Black subjectivity.

His thesis exhibition Cash Crop has toured the country for over a decade; his work Voices of Future Past has been featured at the National Cathedral at Washington, D.C.; and his life-sized bronze casts of Black Civil War soldiers spotlight an overlooked group of heroes in Wilmington, NC. His work is also part of permanent collections at museums including the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, NC, and the Nasher Museum of Art in Durham.

In Stephen Hayes: Reclaiming the Discarded, Hayes traces a historical sojourn from the shores of the West African coast, through the trials of slavery and Jim Crow, and into the modern-day scars left physically and mentally on the Black community in America. The truths and subjects of these untold stories are underscored by Hayes’ choices of materials and media.

“Hayes’ process of reclaiming found materials that would traditionally be deemed broken or undesirable calls into question what exactly we are being told to aspire to and whose interests are served in pursuit of these aspirations,” gallery founder Linda Shropshire. “In Stephen Hayes: Reclaiming the Discarded, the artist’s deep well of techniques and variety of media speak to his understanding of the ways that we, too, are broken and discarded by a system that prioritizes productivity over community, appearance over quality, and symbolic wealth over wellness.”

Stephen Hayes artwork

Stephen Hayes, QUEEN COTTON, 2021.
Stephen Hayes, QUEEN COTTON, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Ella West Gallery.

In Queen Cotton, 2021, raw cotton buds tell a story underscoring the juxtaposition between idyll and toil. Reaching through the thick bolls of cotton with hands poised for plucking, the textured Afro cloud adorning the head of Queen Cotton is a site where those who toiled reclaim their regality. Adorned with a crown of burr flowers, the sharpest part of the plant, she is imbued with a messianic divinity that both confronts and renews those engaging with her multidimensional narrative.

Horses also appear in multiple works with broken, mismatched, or uneven legs. Hayes references the dire consequences these animals often suffer despite their majestic appearance, much like workers unable to fulfill their duties may suffer a life of hardship and oppression.

In Fancy Legs, 2017, jagged spindles splay out beyond an ornate frame, creating the legs of two horses tethered together but running in different directions. Considering this reality alongside one’s own image immerses the observer in a broader discourse, revealing insights into our identity as we contend with these symbolic representations.

In another corner of the exhibition, a collection of bronze muses stands as envoys of collective memory, powerful missives from a troubled past. While Hayes’ subjects are cast from those who walk among us today, the symbols he uses to adorn them transport the audience into a historical setting from which Black women’s trials and triumphs can be reimagined and re-experienced.

About Ella West Gallery and Founder Linda Shropshire

Ella West Gallery is a contemporary art gallery dedicated to diverse, underrepresented artists from around the world who are committed to pushing the boundaries of art that will redefine art history. Located in the vibrant neighborhood of Black Wall Street in downtown Durham, North Carolina, the gallery serves as a catalyst for artistic growth by fostering dialogue and creating connections between artists and art enthusiasts.

By creating space for Black people, people of color, women, and other marginalized communities who have been historically underrepresented based on race, sex, national origin, sexual identity, gender identity, gender expression, or disability, Ella West Gallery aims to redefine the art world and leave an indelible mark on the history of art.

As a former leader for corporate social responsibility and human rights for a Fortune 100 company, gallery founder Linda Shropshire brings both a passion for art and business acumen. As a member of the Board of Trustees for the North Carolina Museum of Art, Shropshire serves to steward the museum’s permanent collection as a leader of the art acquisition team. As a member of the Black Trustee Alliance for Art Museums, she spends time in a national collective community of museum and gallery leaders, ensuring museums and institutions create more space for Black artists and those who are traditionally left out of the art history narrative.

Shropshire studied at North Carolina State University, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the Sotheby’s Institute of Art. A Charlotte, North Carolina native, she has lived in Durham since 1993.

The gallery is located at 104 W. Parrish Street in Durham and is open to the public Wednesday through Saturday, 11 am to 6 pm, with private appointments available upon request. 

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