Interview with Cornell Watson, whose powerful photography exhibition, ‘Tarred Healing’, is on display at the Chapel Hill Public Library

Cornell Watson: tarred healing | Until Thursday 30 June | Chapel Hill Public Library, Chapel Hill

tarred healingan exhibition of photos by Durham photographer Cornell Watson on black healing and black spaces in and around the UNC campus, was originally scheduled to premiere at the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History at UNC-Chapel Hill in February, the culmination of Watson’s artist residency at the center.

There had already been growing tensions between Watson and the Stone Center over which photographs might be included in the exhibit, when The Washington Post published work from the exhibit, a week before the scheduled opening of the Stone Center exhibit. Alleging that Watson had breached his exclusive contract, Stone Center director Joseph Jordan canceled the exhibit entirely. (Watson says he didn’t violate any agreement.)

In the original exhibit, Jordan had wanted to file three photos, which depict students protesting on campus over the board’s handling of Nikole Hannah-Jones’ tenure decision. The NAACP paid to have these three photos printed and included in a new exhibit, this one presented by the Chapel Hill Public Library. On April 30, tarred healing open.

The photographers document and share the point of view to which they bear witness. Watson wanted to tell part of this story through the lens of black students; following them around campus led him to their demonstrations. As the exhibition celebrates its two-week opening, the INDY Week spoke with Watson about the photo series exhibited as originally planned and centered on the Chapel Hill community.

INDY WEEK: Which image do you feel most connected to?

WATSON: There are two to which I am most connected. One is definitely the Rogers-Eubanks photo. The other is the Strayhorn family photo. It really makes you think about everything we’ve been through, especially them. The Strayhorn family came to Carrboro after being freed from slavery. And back then – if you really think about Carrboro and how violent it was during Reconstruction and Jim Crow – it’s almost like winning the lottery so you can still own land and own a house, coming out of that era. I really value around family because I come from a big family. Family is how we survive – and this could be talking about family not necessarily being related by blood, but family, in general, is how we black people survive.

And then with the Rogers-Eubanks [photo], I feel very connected to that in a way because that’s our story. We always rise above this situation and for them they have literally risen above a garbage can situation.

What was your internal dialogue when you were told that certain photos would not be posted by the UNC Stone Center?

I followed these students for a reason. They tied the story very well. The story I was trying to tell regarding the unsung founders memorial and James Cates [a Black man who was stabbed to death by white supremacists on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus on 1970] and some of these other bigger issues that keep black people from healing – why shouldn’t that be part of the story? When you see the demo photos of these students juxtaposed with the stories they were talking about, it’s really hard to deny why they don’t match the story.

I was in the room with these students and saw what was going on and what they were talking about. I saw the connection with everything else. Even with the illustration of the unsung founders memorial – when you look at this, and see how the fingers down [of the memorial] really pushing through all that weight on them, and then you look at black students and how they’re still pushing even through all that white supremacist weight on the board – there’s a lot of similarities. If you had to put this image [Clayton Somers looking at the camera] above this picture [demonstrators holding signs]it would look like the image of the memorial of the unknown founders.

What did you learn from your residency at UNC?

Trust your instincts. I started the residency trying to tap into the feelings, the energy of college from the perspective of black students. It led me to follow them in their demonstrations and then it led me to hear all their concerns about all the other places I was supposed to question and look through the residence.

We all know the story of what happened with the series of photos, and I was really convinced that these student protests were part of this photo report. When you have like, this type of power that comes down on you, they try to make you believe that it doesn’t belong in your story.

What do you want the public to leave with?

This is very centered around the black community of Chapel Hill. These are their stories. Most importantly, I want them to feel seen and their stories heard. I hope the whole community will feel inspired to do something. We’ve come a long way, but there’s still a lot of work to do. As you can see from the photos, there is no memorial for James Cates. There is still a lack of diversity on the board. Strayhorn House in Carrboro has a lot of work to do. The plaque at the Rizzo Center doesn’t even recognize the slaves who are buried there and the unmarked graves.

I hope people feel inspired to do something. It could be that they are donating to help restore the Strayhorn family home, which is one of Carrboro’s Historic Homes. People vote to make sure we have a more diverse board that is representative of the wider community and able to make decisions to influence some of these other things. I hope people will feel moved to go visit the Rogers-Eubanks center and see all the work they have done and see how close the landfill is to their community.

But most importantly, I hope Black Chapel Hill can feel a sense of pride. The name of the series is called tarred healing and I think a big part of the healing process is acknowledging our stories, even the painful ones. I hope this will move this healing process forward in the right direction.

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