In the late spring of 2020, Emile Charles, a first-year English and pre-nutrition major at UNC, approached Public Art Coordinator for the Chapel Hill Community Arts & Culture department Steve Wright, and shared his concerns regarding the lack of cultural representation and public awareness for the Black Lives Matter movement in Chapel Hill.
After witnessing the racial injustices that caused George Floyd’s death, Charles wanted the Town of Chapel Hill to better solidify its representation of Black community members and the cultures that make up the Town.
Since then, the Chapel Hill Community Arts & Culture department has been working alongside community members on a public art project to bring light to and educate the community on widespread discrimination.
The art project, “New Voices”, which is a series of banners outside of Peace and Justice Plaza in Chapel Hill, was designed by Victoria Primicias, an artist originally from Manila, Philippines, who is now based in Wake Forest.
“I just want the community to feel welcomed into this space – that they are represented and that they feel enlivened by the artwork,” Primicias said.
Incorporating inclusive art
In the new banner installation, Primicias included the Statue of Liberty to represent civil justice, a Black Lives Matter fist to represent racial justice, a scale to represent women’s rights and a rainbow to represent the LGBTQ+ community. She also included the North Carolina state flower — the dogwood — and a Chapel Hill postmark to commemorate the space, which set her apart from other submissions, Charles said.
“I think there’s one side of engagement, which is political and very policy-focused, but there’s another side that’s culture focused,” Charles said. “So this was trying to pull on those culture strings: the art that we have in our town represents who we are, that represents our town culture.”
Birth of the banners
After hearing and agreeing with Charles’ requests for the Town of Chapel Hill to address these issues, Wright and his team started brainstorming ideas.
“We know Peace and Justice Plaza is a great location,” Wright said. “It’s historically the place in town where people get together to talk about political issues. And so we try to imagine, what could be done in the Peace and Justice Plaza? What kind of meaningful public art to address these issues?”
Wright and his team considered using temporary murals or canvases to create their works, but with the pandemic persisting and the Chapel Hill Courthouse being a historical Town property, they had to make sure that whatever medium they chose would not draw crowds that disobeyed COVID-19 guidelines or would damage the building.
“Eventually, we came to the idea of, ‘let’s have an artist design some banners that can be displayed and enjoyed and be very impactful,’” Wright said.
From there, Wright and his team set up a call to artists in fall 2020, asking for credentials, experience and a rough proposal concept. They then assembled a selection committee of about five or six people, some from stakeholder groups like The Chapel Hill Cultural Arts Commission and some interested community members who had art knowledge, as well as knowledge on the particular topic.
This selection committee, which Charles was a part of, decided to commission Primicias.
A hope for greater impact
Primicias said being selected for this project felt like a full-circle moment as she had designed one of UNC Chapel Hill’s logos back in 2001.
“I was very happy when I learned that my work was selected,” Primicias said. “I looked for icons or imagery that fit into the parameters of the project as a peace and justice theme.”
For Primicias, Charles and Wright, the most rewarding part of this project was seeing it come to fruition when the banners were finally hung earlier this month after waiting for approval from the Chapel Hill Historic District Commission.
In addition to the symbolic banners, educational QR code signs have been added in the Plaza. When scanned, they direct people to a website that explains the history of Peace and Justice Plaza, including specific events, dates and figures who fought for civil rights and other issues.
Charles and Wright share similar hopeful sentiments on how the “New Voices” banners will impact the community.
“Peace and Justice Plaza sits across from our campus,” Charles said.
“I hope students are taking the time to look at that banner, and to really think about what it means.”