Vitus Shell, a Monroe-native artist and educator, held his funded gallery, “‘Bout It, Bout It, The Political Power of Just Being” at the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum that focused on the hardships of the African American community in Louisiana in hopes to ignite a grassroots movement.
Shell’s project is a mixture between medieval religious iconography and temporary youth in the African American community. When he was pursuing his master’s degree in fine arts at The University of Mississippi, he became interested in traditional European artwork that idolized others for their achievements. Shell’s mission is to illustrate the political power of just being and make art that empowers the community that has been overlooked and underrepresented for ages.
“It was kind of like a romantic idea to create a safe space for Black folks to just exist,” said Shell.
He was inspired to depict images of his students and colleagues in their everyday attire, just existing. These images, however, are painted using bring gold colors to portray virtuousness, similar to the medieval iconography used to depict saints and other historical figures. The name of this gallery comes from lyrics from Master P’s hip-hop song, “I’m ‘Bout It, ‘Bout It,” a song that discusses the hardships of the African American community. This gave Shell an edge that helped him portray the political stance in his art, and the power that is taken away from African Americans in the media.
“A lot of times, when you see videos, you see a negative image of Black folk. It’s a hot topic, and it’s not something you can’t clean off,” said Shell. “I think there’s way more good that happens here, and what I think I’m doing is adding to the narrative of how black lives actually look.”
A short showcase of Shell’s gallery
Annabell Smith, historian and alum from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, attended the gallery and said she was fascinated by Shell’s ability to create a message that was forced to be understood.
Smith said, “Vitus Shell’s work brings a traditionally excluded narrative into the forefront of art and design within more institutional art museums.” She said, “By placing his emphasis on everyday African American people and aligning the political power of ‘just being’, Shell showcases not only a visual appealing exhibit but a conscious notion of activism and community.”
In Lafayette, there are many historical confederate statues and landmarks, as well as a conservative outlook. Over the past decade, there have been many attempts to move the city forward, away from the prejudices that lie within Louisiana’s history. Though Lafayette is known for its progression, there is still a lack in recognition of minorities in Louisiana.
Cory Stewart, a Lafayette-based artist, film director and comedy writer, uses his art to exemplify the lack of representation of the African American community. Stewart was recently featured in the Willingly Rejected Art Exhibition in February for Black History Month. For the event, he created a rendition of the Acadiana flag that featured a large, black fist in the place of the Stella Maris, which is the largest part of the item. He also changed the colors from red, white and blue to black, green and red, which are colors used in the flags of some of the countries in Africa.
Stewart’s rendition of the Acadiana flag from his official Instagram
“I have a lot of pride in Acadiana, though I’m not from here,” said Stewart. “When it comes to Blacks in Acadiana, a big topic is the Mouton statue and other Confederate symbols. I think black cultures are never really talked about here.”
Stewart said he thought Shell’s gallery was insightful and more politically charged than what he could grasp in his own art. He found that Shell’s work was a means of recognizing a community’s need for acceptance and appreciation rather than just beautiful art.
“Shell’s art is made to create change, to move forward” said Stewart.
Shell’s lists of achievements, including showcases at multiple universities and galleries across the country, a mural on the National Civil Rights Museum and his commissions to create public art throughout Memphis, Tennessee, are bound to expand with the grassroots movement he has traveling across the country.
“I think this is for everyone to see,” said Shell. “My gallery is for everyone because I want others to see the lives of Black folk, and how it’s different from what the media has to say about them.”
A view of Shell’s gallery from the inside.