SECCA welcomes in Black History Month with exhibit by portrait artist Vitus Shell

Larry Little stands with artitst Vitus Shell in front of a mural Shell created to portray Little’s activisim in the community.

SECCA welcomes in Black History Month with exhibit by portrait artist Vitus Shell
February 21
04:31 2023

The art form of portraiture has been around just as long as art itself. Throughout history portraiture has been used to uplift white monarchs, people of power, importance, and wealth. Louisiana-based artist Vitus Shell is challenging that tradition with his exhibit, “Vitus Shell: ‘Bout It ‘Bout It, The Political Power of Just Being,” which is on display at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA). 

The exhibit features about a dozen hand-painted portraits of Black men and women from all walks of life. In the background is a collage of old magazines and newspapers Shell has collected over the years relating to Black culture. Each of the portraits has a gold-painted frame, as often seen on framed portraits of monarchs, presidents, and royalty. 

Instead of getting professional models for the exhibit, Shell said he pushed for average everyday people because that’s what the exhibit is about, giving Black people permission to just be themselves. “The ideal of The Political Power of Just Being was about just letting Black folks just be,” said Shell while discussing the exhibit at SECCA last week. 

Shell said he believes it’s important to show and create positive images of the Black community because it creates an opportunity to escape the stereotypes. “It’s important to have movies like Wakanda Forever because it gives that feeling of being free, being safe, and The Political Power of Just Being is about all of those things,” Shell said. 

When planning the exhibit for SECCA, Shell said he wanted to include someone local. And that’s when the name Larry Little was mentioned. “I looked up Larry Little and I think a football player came up,” Shell laughed. With a little more research Shell discovered Larry Little of Winston-Salem. A native of Winston-Salem, Little is the  co-founder of the Winston-Salem Chapter of the Black Panther Party, the first chapter in the South. Under his leadership, the chapter implemented several community survival programs including the free breakfast program for children, free health screening, and the Joseph Waddell People’s Free Ambulance Service. 

In addition to his work with the Black Panther Party, Little also served on the Winston-Salem Board of Alderman (now City Council) for eight years. He is currently a tenured professor at Winston-Salem State University. 

“I typed in Winston-Salem and Larry’s picture came up and this was the one that really stood out,” Shell said. “I called and said, ‘Y’all don’t have to worry about nothing … with this picture it’s going to turn out great.’”

The mural, which catches your eye as soon as you walk into the exhibit, shows Little wearing his iconic Black Panther beret and displaying a clenched fist, the symbol for Black Power, on a gold background with white lines that look like sun rays, and red stars. After seeing the mural for the first time, Little was in awe at Shell’s work. 

“Wow … it’s kind of shocking to see it in person,” Little said. 

The exhibit, “Vitus Shell: ‘Bout It ‘Bout It, The Political Power of Just Being,” will be on display at SECCA, 750 Marguerite Dr., until June 18. For more information visit 

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Tevin Stinson

Tevin Stinson

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