University Galleries presents Freedom Ship: The Artwork of Curtis James art exhibition


Artwork by Curtis James featured as the University Galleries newest exhibition from April 1, 2021 until June 30, 2021.

Sydney Ross, theCulture Reporter

The University Galleries at North Carolina A&T State University will be showing the Freedom Ship: The Art of Curtis James exhibition on April 1. The artwork displayed in this exhibit comes from the 2006 book, Freedom Ship by Doreen Rappaport that tells the story of Robert Smalls, a runaway slave during the American Civil War from Charleston, S.C. 

University Galleries’ newest exhibition is a part of their activism theme—inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and the racial inequalities displayed across America this past summer. Because of this, the university gallery wanted to display pieces that showed the beauty and diversity in Black Art. 

Black Art Matters: Works From The Permanent Collection was the first exhibit displayed virtually by the gallery under the established activism theme. The virtual exhibit comprises art spanning from the 1930s to the early 2000s and displays the emotions and various techniques of Black art. The virtual exhibition was first shown on Nov. 1 and is expected to run continuously. 

“Just as music played a role in the civil rights movement, art is playing a huge role in today’s movements,” Paul Baker, director of University Galleries said.

Along with Freedom Ship, the University Galleries will be holding a virtual discussion program on March 31 at 6 p.m. called African American Women as Artists and Activists.  The program will be hosted by award-winning actress Angela Ray and feature female artists such as Sunny Gravely Foushee and Virginia Holmes that also use their art on an activist stage. 

The Freedom Ship exhibition comprises various different oil on canvas paintings put together by African American children’s book illustrator, Curtis James. The pieces were donated to the university by Texas businessman Arthur Primas. Primas also donated the pieces for the virtual exhibit, Rosa: The Works of Bryan Collier. He wanted to provide a cultural experience to the students and community members of N.C A&T.

The artwork from this exhibition is telling the story from the perspective of a little boy named Samuel who was born a slave but escapes to his freedom. With the help of his family, he was able to escape to freedom. Samuel runs into other freedmen who teach him the inner workings of the ship. As Samuel grows up, he becomes an officer in the Union army and helps thousands of other slaves escape to freedom. 

Freedom Ship is just one of the books James has illustrated. Some of his other famous artworks include Bottoms Up, I Got Your Back, The Ballerina and more.

James studied at Pratt Institute in New York where he received his BFA and his MFA in Fine Arts. Since then, he has received several honors and awards for his works including the Silver Plate Award from the House of Representatives, the Gold Key Award from the Savannah College of Art, the Merit Award from Atlanta College Art, and the Gold Medal for Outstanding Artist from Georgia State Board of Education, and the Albany Georgia Museum Purchase Award—in which he became the youngest person in the museum’s history to receive such an award.

Baker hopes that visitors not only enjoy the beauty in James’ artwork but that these pieces inspire conversations amongst visitors to value the beauty and importance of all Black art. 

“African American art is an important part of the American experience,” Baker said. “The beauty aesthetic in African American art is just as powerful as any other genre of art.”

The Freedom Ship: The Art of Curtis James exhibition will soon be on display in the University Galleries, which is located in the Dudley building on N.C. A&T campus. The gallery is free and open to the public Monday-Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and by appointment only on Saturdays. 

For more information about the new exhibition and about other exhibitions that are being shown, you may visit the University Galleries webpage.