"The South Got Something to Say" curator Karen Comer Lowe.
Courtesy of JLenz
Lowe’s concept for the show was also inspired by the last presidential election and the influential role Atlanta voters played in the contest.
“I’m a native Atlantan, and I never thought I would see the state of Georgia vote blue. When that happened, I really started to think about Atlanta and its influence” from trap music to the predominance of Atlanta as a film location, says Lowe.
“I really do believe that people outside of Atlanta are looking at Atlanta, and they’re looking at what we’re going to do next.”
Lowe was asked to curate this second iteration of the outdoor digital exhibition by Arts & Entertainment Atlanta, an economic development project of the City of Atlanta that combines outdoor media like billboards with art and advertisement in public spaces. Local art organization Dashboard debuted the first digital sign project in June 2020.
“The signs are intended to authentically reflect the vibrancy, diversity and creativity of the city as a whole,” says Fredalyn Frasier, project director of Central Atlanta Progress and the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District, which manages A&E Atlanta.
The goal of the project is, undeniably, to get Atlantans downtown, as well as increase the exposure of Atlanta-based artists. And its placement couldn’t be more high profile. The artworks are installed at four downtown sites: 235 Peachtree Street, 101 Marietta Street, Reverb by Hard Rock Hotel at 89 Centennial Olympic Park and 75 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.
Each digital sign features artwork by two or three artists that rotates with commercial advertisements, which in turn help fund the cost of the project as well as other A&E Atlanta programming.
Of the 10 artists involved, only one, Kojo Griffin, created an original work for the exhibition, a wry “word search” that snakes up the largest of the signs with the words “Those Southern Roots Run Deep” circled in red. It’s located on the side of Reverb hotel. Other works, says Lowe, were selected “to capture someone’s attention in a split second. So I had to think about work in that way.”
Work by Fahamu Pecou on the side of Reverb by Hard Rock Hotel.
Courtesy of Erin Sintos
Credit: Erin Sintos
Credit: Erin Sintos
She also wanted to represent the diversity of Atlanta’s art scene, with long-established artists such as Jamele Wright, Kojo Griffin, Fahamu Pecou and Alfred Conteh next to a nationally prominent group of younger, emerging artists such as Ariel Dannielle, a former MOCA-GA Working Artist fellow, and Shanequa Gay, whose work is in the private collections of actor Samuel L. Jackson and SCAD Hong Kong.
“The South Got Something to Say” is Lowe’s first public art project, and it presented multiple challenges. Counterintuitive in many ways, curating the exhibition was like choosing artwork to fit into preselected frames. Lowe had to figure out how to make her selected artworks function within the parameters of these large horizontal and vertical signs, the largest of which, the Reverb sign, is 102 feet high by 29 feet wide.
For participating artists like Jamele Wright, a faculty member in the art department at Georgia Gwinnett College, exhibiting his work in such a public space after more than a year in quarantine was a chance to channel happy, positive feelings. Wrapped around the corner of 235 Peachtree St., his colorful, abstract work is inspired by his repeated quarantine viewings of the 1978 Motown Productions musical “The Wiz.”
“You really had to look for that happy space, right?” Wright says about his quarantine experience. “I was tired of watching TV, and I was tired of watching the news.”
Jamele Wright's "Flat Splat, Just Like That #2" at 235 Peachtree St.
Courtesy of Erin Sinto
Credit: Erin Sinto
Credit: Erin Sinto
Wright stitched together multiple canvases to create “Flat Splat, Just Like That #2,” a kinetic frieze of slime greens, punchy reds and cornflower blues that virtually pop out of its billboard parameters. “Flat Splat” feels like a paean to a freshly reopened cityscape of graffiti, neon and attention-arresting signage.
Other works are more connected to issues of social injustice like Shanequa Gay’s “Ode to Kathryn Johnston,” an excerpt from a performance piece that towers over 101 Marietta. The piece references the 2006 police shooting of a 92-year-old Atlantan in her home, 14 years before the eerily similar no-knock warrant and killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky.
Much of the impact of the work in “The South Got Something to Say,” is Black bodies writ large, dominating the streetscape in the form of Fahamu Pecou’s shirtless man in “Flux” or Alfred Conteh’s typically heartfelt portrait of a contemplative older man, “Terrance.” Many of the participating artists, including Gerald Lovell, Ariel Dannielle and Jurell Cayetano, are part of a growing movement, both nationally and locally, of revisionist portraiture of Black subjects.
Jurell Cayetano's "Rochelle & Brittany" at 75 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.
Courtesy of Jurell Cayetano
Joy is often the theme in “The South Got Something to Say,” whether in Wright’s brilliant color palette or in Jurell Cayetano’s image of two laughing, simpatico female friends in his 2017 portrait “Rochelle & Brittany.”
Cayetano welcomed the chance to exhibit alongside a multigenerational cast of Atlanta artists. “It’s an honor to be a part of this group,” he says. “Being recognized by people that are further along in their career than me lets me know that I’m on the right path.”
In some ways “The South Got Something to Say,” is the perfect post-quarantine project. It provides a chance for artists to flex their talent in an accessible, dramatically outsized space, a chance for audiences to experience creativity without having to pay for it, and a chance to connect after more than a year of isolation.
For Lowe, “The South Got Something to Say” is an opportunity to open up the often insular art world to the larger public.
“My hope is that someone walking or driving down the street, will get stopped in their tracks by one of these images, and it will take them down this path of investigation to find out more about the artist.”
“The South Got Something to Say.” Through July 31. Presented by Arts & Entertainment Atlanta. Billboard locations: 235 Peachtree St. (Alfred Conteh, Jamele Wright); 101 Marietta St. (Shanequa Gay, Gerald Lovell, Yanique Norman); 75 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive (Jurell Cayetano, Sheila Pree Bright); 89 Centennial Olympic Park Drive (Ariel Dannielle, Kojo Griffin, Fahamu Pecou). aeatlanta.com/program/the-south-got-something-to-say