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Bullets, threads: Local artist uses striking medium to explore her African heritage

Lakea Shepherd, a Winston Salem native, has asked herself over the past couple years of her life: What does it mean to protect myself?

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Maggie Brown
, WRAL multiplatform producer
RALEIGH, N.C. — Lakea Shepard, a Winston-Salem native, has asked herself in recent years: What does it mean to protect myself and how do I do it? The question crept into her dreams, and one night, she dreamed that a young Black boy was shot in front of her.

"It made me think about myself, being in a brand new city," she said. "How am I going to protect myself from the world around me?"

The ways that many people protect themselves is through weapons. That's what her father did. But as a Black woman, she wasn't allowed to touch her father's gun.

Malik: Sovereign of Faith, is the latest exhibition that opened on Sept. 18 by North Carolina artist Lakea Shepard. It's her first solo museum exhibition at a contemporary meuseum.

"You can't do that, that's off limits," she said. "I don't agree with it, that's why I decided to explore that idea of protection."

She decided to explore other ways of protection, aside from a weapon, through her art. "Now I have my own perspective on what being a Black woman in America, and being protected, means to me," she said.

Protection to Shepard boiled down to wisdom and knowledge from her family. Her pieces use items she finds at home, or that her mother gives her from local thrift shops. She uses textiles, beads and thread to learn about her identity.

Bullet casings and textiles are featured in Lakea Shepard's latest piece at the CAM Raleigh

Shepard's newest sculptures featured in the Contemporary Art Museum of Raleigh give us a glimpse inside her family's story. The woven headpieces feature waxed linen and bullet casings. The head sculptures are placed on mannequins dressed in Dickey's jumpsuits, like her father used to wear.

"I don't know where my heritage is, I don't know where I come from or where my ancestors come from, so I do a lot of exploring through my medium," she said.

For this series, Shepard flew to Detroit to an African bead museum. There are thousands of different beads to chose from, and Shepard said she selects ones that inspire and touch her.

Her exhibit that opened at the CAM Raleigh, "Malik: Sovereign of Faith" is dedicated to her late Uncle, Malik Ali Sharif who Shepard said, "planted a seed of faith in my vision."

Red thread is Lakea Shepard's signature -- red representing femininity.

"The world that I'm in has been created by something or someone," she said, "it's always pulling at my heart. I naturally gravitate toward certain things."

She created her first headpiece for her piece "Poppa Said Girls Don't Play With Guns" in 2012. That year, a gunman killed 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School, spawning conversations in our culture around gun violence. Our society was asking itself, what does it mean to protect children in schools, and how do we do it?

"It has more depth and more meaning, not just to me, but more people now," Shepard said.

Shepard's pieces are ambiguous and multi-dimensional. They could be described as fashion, conceptual art or performance pieces, she said. The mannequins are beautiful yet eerie, as they try to let you into a part of Shepard's mind.

Each of Shepard's pieces are marked by her signature — bright red thread. In African culture, red represents femininity and, "the uniqueness of my work coming to life," she said.

"Being a Black woman is enough inspiration to make a life-long body of work," she said.

Lakea Shepard incorperates the use of beats and fabric found at thrift shops to create her pieces.

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