The late Boston architect Henry Cobb conceived of the museum’s design. Windows in the long, narrow plain building are adorned inside and out with faux shutters and trim made from brown Ipe, a durable and dense Central and South American wood. | Photo by Ruta Smith

 “Unsettled Things: Art from an African American South,” a collection of 44 contemporary pieces of art from 28 artists, will make its national debut Jan. 21 as the inaugural special exhibition for the opening of the International African American Museum.

The exhibit is organized by the Ackland Art Museum at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, according to the museum’s website. 

The exhibit of 20th century art draws its title from a companion collection of essays “The Unfinished Business of Unsettled Things: Art from an African American South,” published this summer by the UNC Press. The book is edited by UNC’s professor of Southern studies Bernard L. Herman.

The wide-ranging pieces come from the Ackland’s permanent collection. The art explores works by artists who were once overlooked but are now considered major figures in the art world. They include three Alabama natives — the late Thornton Dial, Lonnie B. “Sand Man” Holley and the late Mose Tolliver — as well as the late Georgian Nellie Mae Rowe. The artwork centers on three themes: life, spirit and matter. The themes emerge from recurring threads in the works’ subject matter, from the artists’ shared approaches to choosing and applying materials, and from the artists’ accounts of their ideas, efforts and struggles.

Museum to open in less than 10 weeks

The interior of the IAAM is nearing completion, sources said. Its raised building sits on the site of Gadsden’s Wharf, a 19th century slave-trading port on the Cooper River. When the IAAM opens, it will present the Black experience in America in nine galleries, featuring the stories of rice, culture and religion. 

Slavery will be told through the subject of rice in the Carolina Gold Gallery. The Carolina Connections gallery will display scenes of modern South Carolina and other African American sites across the state. The Gullah Geechee Gallery will hold a replica of a praise house with the sounds of a worship service recorded at Johns Island’s Moving Star Hall Praise House on River Road. 

At the museum’s west end, the Center for Family History will help visitors trace their genealogy — something missing from the histories of many Black families across the nation. The museum’s staff will also direct visitors to DNA testing so they can use science to find their African roots.

Last month, the IAAM announced that the Most Rev. Michael Curry, presiding bishop and primate of the Episcopal Church in the United States, will lead a public worship service and a private “Blessing of the Water and Sacred Ground.” The pre-opening worship service will be held at Mount Moriah Baptist Church in North Charleston.

Both services will be held Nov. 16, with the pre-opening worship service scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. It is open to the public. To attend in person or online, visit The blessing ceremony onsite is by invitation only.

Curry, born in Chicago and ordained in 1978, served as a priest in North Carolina parishes until being elected bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina in 2000. He became leader of the nation’s Episcopal churches in 2015. Curry got the world’s attention when he delivered, during the 2018 wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, a passionate address about the power of love.

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