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Culture: Out of the shadows, Gullah arts in the spotlight

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Nineteenth century artists created a genre of painting in the South’s rice country known as “plantation views,” idyllic pastoral landscapes.

They omitted any depiction of the slaves who made the scenes possible, Sara Arnold, curator of collections at the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, said during the Lowcountry Rice Forum last week. This whitewashed version of the slave masters’ world eventually began to give way to different views of wealth, power, race, resistance and conflict in art depicting plantation life. People in bondage began to appear in art, as they tended the fields and carried bundles under the watchful eye of an overseer with a whip in hand.

The Gullah culture of slave villages has come out of the shadows, and the biennial Lowcountry Rice Forum is an attempt to celebrate that culture before it disappears from the landscape. Artist Jonathan Green, who made his reputation painting scenes from his childhood on the sea islands, began the Rice Forum two years ago in Charleston with an examination of the history of Gullah traditions.

Dwight McInvaill, the Georgetown County library director, recognized the possibilities of the forum’s next topic, Gullah influence on the arts, and snagged the event for Georgetown County. It moves to the University of South Carolina in Columbia in two years and to Savannah and Beaufort in the future. Last week’s Rice Forum examined the gradual acceptance and recognition of the talent of enslaved and free people in painting, furniture making, music and dance in a busy three days of events held at venues from Litchfield to Georgetown.

“You can’t talk about Southern decorative art without the thousands of enslaved people who made that life possible,” said Daniel Ackerman, associate curator of the Museum of Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, N.C. He said the museum has spent decades reading newspapers, wills and documents and recording the names of plantation owners who got the credit for craftsmanship as well as the names of their slaves and freemen who did the work.

“There are dozens of hidden hands behind every solitary master craftsman,” Ackerman said. “Race and ethnicity are tied up in every item on display.”

That includes a sideboard owned by the Alston family of the Waccamaw Neck that is now property of the museum in Old Salem. Charleston cabinetmaker Peter Cooper is credited with making the sideboard, but Alexander Calder, an orphan he trained, may have had a hand in it.

African-Americans, however, know little about their history, Ackerman said. Even the trend of displaying more African-American art does not assure a more diverse audience for a museum, said Arnold, curator of collections at the Gibbes.

McInvaill said the forum was a benefit to understanding Georgetown County’s past. “It built community spirit while informing all of us about the Gullah culture we share,” he said.

Most would agree that the Rice Forum’s signature event was the presentation by the Columbia City Ballet of “Off The Wall and Onto The Stage: Dancing The Art of Jonathan Green” to a nearly sold-out Winyah Auditorium on Friday. But the schedule of events brought such a variety, from academic examination of artists’ work to the joy of songs performed by Ron and Natalie Daise and the Freedom Riders Children’s Choir, there was opportunity to become enlightened at every turn.

McInvaill took part in a day-long forum for scholars at the Waccamaw Neck Library that examined visual arts from before the Civil War to the present. McInvaill’s contribution — he wouldn’t call himself one of the scholars — was an examination of the rice plantation sketchbooks and photographs of artist Alice Ravenel Huger Smith. She was such a close friend of McInvaill’s parents that he called her his “third grandmother.” He is writing a biography titled “Pursuing Perfection: The Artistic Lessons of Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, 1876 to 1958.” He has researched her use of photography and sketchbooks in creating final works for “A Woman Rice Planter” (1913) and “A Carolina Rice Plantation of the Fifties” (1936).

Memories of the Gullah way of life are fading, and the forum opened with a film about local people who could talk about relatives and connections. Dr. Valinda Littlefield of the University of South Carolina conducted the interviews to document a way of life that has been slipping away.

Zenobia Harper said her grandmother spoke almost exclusively Gullah but wouldn’t allow the grandchildren to use it, wanting them to escape the poverty that had held her in a post-slavery state. Harper explained the richness of Gullah food, especially sweets, by saying a serving was usually a tiny square, never a whole piece. She said she was in junior high school before she ever had a bottle of Coke herself.

Thomas Williams of McClellanville remembered being paid a penny for picking a hundred pounds of cotton and “feeling rich” when he could sell 25 mullet for a quarter. Allen Dennison of Georgetown said he grew up with unconditional love. Barbara McCormick and Bunny Rodriguez remembered learning to cook and sew and “make do” from their parents and grandparents.

The full interviews are available through the library’s website.

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