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Exhibition

Break the Mold: New Takes on Traditional Art Making

September 25, 2021–February 6, 2022
East Building, Level B, Joyce W. Pope Gallery

Break the Mold showcases contemporary artists who use traditional modes of art making and crafting to tackle timely subject matter. Innovative takes on embroidery, ceramics, quilting, furniture, interior design, and fashion accessories serve to explore diverse topics such as gender assumptions and inequalities, prison reform, racial justice, memory, and loss, as well as how objects transmit and transform social and cultural history. This show features 25 contemporary artists, including Sanford Biggers, Elizabeth Brim, Maria Britton, Julie Cockburn, Rodney McMillan, Rachel Meginnes, Katy Mixon, Gabriel de la Mora, Yasumasa Morimura, Thomas Schmidt, Shinique Smith, and Do Ho Suh, whose artworks are displayed alongside their historical predecessors.

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Tradition plays an uncomfortable role in contemporary art. Artists working today strive to make something new, to revolutionize subject matter or materials, or contribute something unexpected—but the art that came before provides an important context and, sometimes, much-needed contrast. Hank Willis Thomas’s quilt Life, made of recycled prison uniforms, memorializes the legacy of incarceration imposed upon families of color just as traditional quilts embody the stories embedded in fabrics that transcend generations. Elizabeth Alexander’s The Great Enemy of Truth “edits” a full set of Confederate commemorative plates to remove celebratory elements as a conscientious reminder of the negative ramifications of the Civil War. Colin Quashie’s French Toile . . . Negro Toil updates the luxurious, pastoral themes of traditional toile to highlight the work of enslaved laborers, who often made such leisure scenes—and the elegance provided by such expensive fabrics—possible. The historic and the contemporary, then, feed each other in meaningful ways: contemporary art extends the lineage of these craft and artistic traditions, while historical work expands the context for the contemporary.


Break the Mold was conceived in collaboration with the Mint Museum in Charlotte, which provided critical loans and curatorial support. It is organized by the North Carolina Museum of Art.

This exhibition is made possible, in part, by the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources; the North Carolina Museum of Art Foundation, Inc.; and the William R. Kenan Jr. Endowment for Educational Exhibitions. Research for this exhibition was made possible by Ann and Jim Goodnight/The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fund for Curatorial and Conservation Research and Travel.

Elizabeth Alexander, The Great Enemy of Truth, 2019, hand-cut set of Confederate commemorative porcelain plates, paper packaging, glass, wood, and brass wall mounts, full set: H. 60 × W. 260 × D. 5 in., Courtesy of Hodges Taylor and the artist

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