published Sunday, July 14th, 2013

Union camps for escaped slaves inspires latest Hunter installment: Artistic ‘Contraband’

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    "Kin L (Ego)" 2011, Conte on paper, vintage leather

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    "Bleck" Conte crayon on wood, chain conte crayon on wood, gloves

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    "Kin LII (Pie in the Sky)" Conte on paper, plaster sculpture with base.

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    "Cross the River, Round the Bend" Conte on paper, rope.

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    "Untitled [Disc with Chain]" Conte crayon on wood, chain

If You Go

What: “Whitfield Lovell: Deep River.”

When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursday; noon-5 p.m. Sunday; through Oct. 13

Where: Hunter Museum of American Art, 10 Bluff View.

Admission: $4.95-$9.95; free to museum members.

Information: 267-0968 or

By the end of the Civil War, about 100 Union camps around the country offered asylum and a safe haven for escaped slaves.

One of those camps — known as Camp Contrabands — was located in Chattanooga in the area that became known as Hill City, Chattanooga’s first black neighborhood in what is now North Chattanooga.

When New York-based artist Whitfield Lovell, whose work has been on display at the Hunter of Museum of American Art for at least a decade, won the MacArthur Fellowship in 2007, organizers at the Hunter decided it was time to ask him to create a new exhibit for the museum. It took several years to conceive and complete and, during his research here, he discovered Camp Contraband and used it as inspiration for “Deep River,” an exhibition on display through Oct. 13.

“He found out that about 4,000 people were there in Camp Contraband over time, and that is what inspired him,” says Nandini Makrandi, chief curator at the Hunter. “This idea of being across a river and that the river had to be breached in order to get to that final place of freedom and hope. His installation at the museum is literally across the river from that spot.”

Lovell, who was unavailable for comment, created the exhibit’s pieces using found objects — 56 circular wood discs he discovered at foundries here and elsewhere and photographs from passports, photo IDs, mug shots and photo booth pictures.

Using charcoal, he redrew the faces and heads of some of the subjects onto the discs. For Lovell’s Kin Series, an ongoing collection of individual portrait images in crayon, he drew the faces onto parchment and paired them with found objects such as chains, a water tap or a child’s doll, then displayed them in shadow boxes. Some pieces of the Kin Series are displayed in the Hunter exhibition.

In the Deep River exhibit, the round wood discs are placed on the floor surrounding a large mound of dirt. Items such as guns, old bottles, a Bible, a skillet, cutlery, a hatchet and pieces of rope are placed in the dirt. A repeating video of water is shown on two walls, helping to create a dramatic atmosphere for the display.

“It’s one of the most complex installments we’ve done, and I think one of the most dramatic,” says Katrina Craven, director of public relations and marketing.

Makrandi adds: “It looks simple, like somebody put some dirt on the floor and threw a few things in it, but it’s really complex.”

While most of Lovell’s work focuses on blacks from the early part of last century, anyone can find a connection to the pieces, Makrandi says.

“A lot of artists depict the anguish of slavery,” she says. “[They focus on] the downtrodden African-American, whether free or slave, but he doesn’t focus on that. If you look at the individuals and you look at their faces, they are mostly calm and assured and confident and that is not how people think about African-Americans slaves.

In one piece, a chain emerges from a tie around a young man’s neck. Makrandi says anyone can feel chained or tied to something in life. Everyone experiences some sort of discrimination or prejudice in their life, she says, and that is the deeper inspiration for the pieces.

“He does go and stick a chain next to it, so obviously he is aware of it, and he will start with that interpretation and wants you to go beyond it.”

Contact staff writer Barry Courter at or at 423-757-6354.

about Barry Courter...

Barry Courter is staff reporter and columnist for the Times Free Press. He started his journalism career at the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1987. He covers primarily entertainment and events for ChattanoogaNow, as well as feature stories for the Life section. Born in Lafayette, Ind., Barry has lived in Chattanooga since 1968. He graduated from Notre Dame High School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in broadcast journalism. He previously was ...

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