Mighty Mural: Pantheress at the Ackland

Artist Georgie Nakima discusses her vision with attendees of the 2nd Friday Art Walk at the Ackland Museum. Photo courtesy of Diana Newton.


By Diana Newton

As part of the 2nd Friday ArtWalk last week, viewers who came to the opening reception at the Ackland Art Museum on UNC’s campus could catch a glimpse of bold, bright slashes of color through the doorway of the ART& space room. Wide horizontal bands of vivid fuchsia, grass green, orange and cerulean blue intertwined in abstract circles and arrows. Or is that a shield?

Coming closer, the installation of a new mural by Georgie Nakima, entitled Pantheress, bursts into full-color view, with the steady gaze of a braided Black woman’s face and bangled arm anchoring its center. Those mingling in the gallery were struck by different aspects of the mural, but all of them commented about the color palette. Sharon Brown of Cary noted that “the colors are often associated with African countries … reflecting a place of belonging, maybe where she is desiring to be.” Later that evening Nakima acknowledged that she is inspired by color theory, and believes that “certain colors can inspire feelings of well-being or connectivity.” She also put her use of bright colors into the context of many of her workspaces: “I am often creating public art on gray, brown, or brick buildings, so I want to be sure to interrupt the mundane.”

The concept begins with a simple outline, “like a coloring book,” Nakima says. Construction and installation is more complicated, and often involves the help of other people, whether they are from a gallery or the community where the work will live. The looming visage of the Pantheress is constructed from wood panels cut to form the facial outline, followed by spray painting, applying custom-printed wallpaper, then hover mounting the face, braids, and arm, and some abstract elements. The relationship between two- and three-dimensionality adds depth of field to the piece and strategically pulls focus to the piercing gaze of the Pantheress. One visitor, Lloyd Phillips of Durham commented, “Her face really draws me in. The three dimensions draw your eye in as if this is a real person with some empathy.” Viewers may see her as an African tribal figure, an indigenous goddess, a contemporary Black queen, or even the artist herself.

The color palette, scale and three-dimensional mounting contribute an Afrofuturistic sense of magical realism to the face of the Pantheress. Photo courtesy of Diana Newton.

Nakima, a Charlotte, North Carolina based multi-disciplinary artist, explains that a pantheress is a female panther. She wanted this mural to serve as an ode to the critical role that women played in powering the Black Panther organization to prominence in the civil rights era. The Black Panthers were often characterized as a militant Black nationalist party with male figureheads such as Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. But Nakima points out that, apart from Angela Davis, 66 percent of its original members were little-known women. These real life Pantheresses were in fact the primary organizers of the Free Breakfast for School Children Program that fed tens of thousands of hungry kids nationwide in the early 1970s. The success of the program both inspired and pressured political leaders to permanently establish its own Federal school breakfast program in 1975.

Real world Pantheress Vivian McMillan distributes bags of free food provided by the Black Panthers’ social program for schoolchildren in NC, 1972. Photo courtesy of Stephen Shames, from the book Comrade Sisters: Women of the Black Panther Party.

Pantheress is not Nakima’s first large-scale mural. Her work can be seen on walls from Rhode Island to Michigan to California. While the new mural at the Ackland pays homage to women of a past era, Nakima’s aesthetic simultaneously pulses to the beat of Afrofuturism: healing, evolution, transformation. In addition to murals, her gallery hosts portraits of renowned Black leaders—MLK and Obama—as well as an unnamed African child, a soulful indigenous woman, a celestial embodiment of Justice. Nakima’s art colorfully weaves an intergenerational needle from Black ancestors to activists to wholly new communities that evolve the culture towards a positive, extraordinary future.

Her vision is calm and clear: “I want activism and revolutionary movements to also look creative and not only militant. I want them to look cohesive and community-oriented, not anti-this or that, but pro-unity.”

Members of Nakima’s family proudly looked on as she answered questions at the opening.“Georgie has always been an artist. Ever since she was young enough to hold a crayon, she started drawing flowers on the wall,” her mother laughingly recalled. Nakima later attended college at Winston-Salem State University, where she studied Biology and Chemistry. Her studies deepened her sense of wonder about nature and her fascination with geometrical patterns, both of which are evident in Pantheress.

When Nakima was asked if she is the Pantheress, she replied with assurance, “We all are.”

Georgie Nakima’s mural, Pantheress, will remain on display at the Ackland Museum for one year from its opening.

Diana Newton is a coach, facilitator, filmmaker, writer, artist, yoga teacher and general Renaissance woman. Her documentary film The Ties That Bind is available for streaming on UNC-TV. She lives in Carrboro and is a UNC alum.

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