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May 2008

A Conversation about Race, Identity, and Art
Written By: 
Jim Hutchisson

“Landscape of Slavery: The Plantation in American Art,” which opens at the Gibbes Museum of Art in May...juxtaposes...traditional views with the more iconoclastic perspectives of contemporary black artists.

Mention American landscape painting, that venerable staple of art history, and what usually comes to mind is something from the Hudson River School, a group of New England artists in the early 1800s that included Thomas Cole and Asher Durand.

Their vast canvases, almost epic in scope, equated the country’s wide-open spaces with a profound faith in a seemingly limitless human potential. They confidently infused the hills, valleys, and streams with a sense of national identity, the promise of prosperity, and the presence of God.

On the other hand, Southern landscape paintings—often dotted with cotton fields, black workers, and plantation houses—seem to occupy less certain terrain, a world ruled not so much by divine harmony as by divine right. In these politically sensitive times, to a society increasingly aware of matters of identity and recognition, this is a subject of some import. After all, in our current turbulent election cycle, one presidential candidate, a white woman, has described the G.O.P.-controlled Congress as being run like a plantation, and another candidate, a black man, is actually being listened to when he tells audiences that it’s finally alright to talk about the racial divide.

“Landscape of Slavery: The Plantation in American Art,” which opens at the Gibbes Museum of Art in May, seeks to continue the dialogue through art. The exhibit presents a group of landscape paintings and plantation-related images from the 18th century to the present. Angela Mack, who conceived of and curated the exhibit, says it is “more than a history of the visual imagery related to the plantation”; rather, it aims to help viewers realize “the impact that this imagery has had on race relations for two centuries.”

Eye of the Beholder

Charleston is an apt birthplace for the exhibit since the city was once the slave capital of the South. Through its port passed thousands of Africans who were branded and traded like livestock, earning a healthy living for the planter class throughout the antebellum period until the Civil War and the 13th Amendment broke the plantation system, freed the slaves, and opened the way to industrialization and the economy of the New South. The plantation scene was a favorite backdrop for many Charleston-based artists, several of whom are repre-sented in the exhibit, such as Thomas Coram, a British-born engraver who worked in Charleston as a painter and art dealer, and William Aiken Walker, a portraitist turned landscape painter.

Paintings by these and similar artists are mostly idealized visions in which the white planters are a beneficent lot; their black field hands are hard workers; and the farmland itself, rendered in rich earthy colors, seems almost to secrete fertility and abundance. Looking closer at such works, there is more than a little irony in this conceit: the true planters were African American slaves whose connection to the land was much more tangible than that of their white owners, who didn’t actually “plant” anything.

John Michael Vlatch, an art historian and contributor to the exhibit’s companion book, goes even further. An authority on plantation art, Vlatch sees works such as Charles Fraser’s circa-1800 Rice Hope Plantation as narrative devices used to mix historical fact and stereotypes of racism and sexism. Fraser, who lived in Charleston, was best known as a miniaturist, but he also painted still lifes and historic scenes. In Rice Hope, the viewer is positioned at a point below the plantation house. Looking upward replicates the deference and respect that the plantation owner presumably required of his slaves or “subjects.” Few slaves are actually represented in these plantation paintings, even though it was obviously slave labor that created the wealth. “There is a kind of wistful revisionism at work here,” Vlatch says.

Another traditional view is Alice R. H. Smith’s Sunday Morning at the Great House (circa 1935), which depicts black servants being greeted by the plantation owner and his family in a kind of receiving line outside the manor house. Smith, who descended from venerable Charleston stock, was one of the foremost painters of the Charleston Renaissance between the World Wars. And with her father, Daniel E.H. Smith, she also coauthored a well-known architectural history of the city.

The painting is the visual equivalent of a serenade, a gentle rhapsody of washed pastels in which nothing jars or discomfits the viewer. Gigantic live oaks create a kind of protective canopy over the people assembled. In the background, a minister surveying the scene from a second-floor piazza conveys a benign but secure authority. And most interesting of all, the male servant who is the focus of the picture converses with the plantation owner, gesturing familiarly toward him and looking him directly in the eye—an intriguing image that is not often shown in such works.

The Gibbes exhibit juxtaposes such traditional views with the more iconoclastic perspectives of contemporary black artists. One need only look at Carrie Ann Weems’ work, in fact, to see the astounding discrepancy. Weems, the daughter of Mississippi sharecroppers who moved to Oregon in the 1950s, became politically active as a high school student when she volunteered as a union organizer in the labor movement. She received her first camera for her 21st birthday and ever since has used it as a tool for both political and creative purposes.

Weems’ untitled work from her Sea Island Series (1992) is a triptych of tinted images, each a different view of an
unclothed black woman seen in right and left profile and facing center. The pieces were originally daguerreotypes of slaves belonging to B.F. Taylor, a Columbia, South Carolina planter. Weems tinted the images purplish blue, perhaps to play on the concept of “colored people,” but as a group what is most arresting is the way the subject’s nakedness confronts and surrounds the viewer. Her gaze is indifferent, suggesting an attitude of unthinking passivity. The pictures have sometimes been referred to as “mug shots.”

Such competing views are fascinating. Alexis Boylan, an assistant professor of art history at the University of Tennessee who also contributed a chapter to the catalog, thinks the exhibit is remarkable precisely because it blends images from both the 19th and 20th centuries. In this way, “audiences can see how this visual iconography gets reworked and reinterpreted over time,” Boylan says. “There have been several recent shows about slavery, but in those exhibitions the time periods of ‘past’ and ‘contemporary’ have been split from each other. Here, the viewer can move back and forth and compare and contrast the images in ways that I think will push us all to consider what ideas and what history about the plantation we want to take forward and perhaps what myths we feel we can leave behind.”

Free at Last

For the Gibbes to do this was not an easy task. It had been the dream of Mack, the museum’s director of curatorial affairs, since at least 2000, when the gallery’s “Poetry of Place” drew plaudits for its showcasing of landscape art. Mack then wanted to highlight the museum’s rich collection of Southern landscapes and juxtapose the traditional with the unconventional. “It was a diplomatic dance all around,” she recalls of the project, which has been almost eight years in the making. “We are a little museum in the South and have a reputation—incorrectly—for being relatively conservative,” Mack notes. To borrow representative works not in the Gibbes’ collections, she had to go to Northern museums, “who were a little leery of us because they thought us so traditional” and to Southern museums, “who worried that the exhibit would create too much controversy in their communities.”

Two thought-provoking items are the late Johnnie Lee Gray’s Backbone of the South (circa 1990) and John Biggers’ Cotton Pickers (1947). In the former landscape, black bodies and faces in blue work clothes are seen in the field, bent over like sacks. The landscape is striated, and in the distance a rutted lane leads to the owner’s house, which is so far away as to be almost overlooked. This inverts the social order typically found in Southern landscapes. In the latter, African American subjects are ghostly figures, mournful and almost dead. Their elongated, attenuated bodies slope downward toward the land that they farm. Their clothes and the sacks they carry are indistinguishable from each other, and the color of the painting is a sickly brown hue—the color of tobacco. “People don’t consciously recognize how art has formed their opinions,” Mack points out. “We carry this catalog of images around in our minds and associate them with certain ideas, but we don’t always realize we’re doing it.”

The power of many of these pieces lies in their technique. Radcliffe Bailey’s untitled multimedia installation (2000)—a huge cigar-shaped collection of tobacco leaves loosely held together—forces the viewer to confront the racist reality of the plantation image by using not just paints but textures, found materials, recorded sounds, and photographs. Juan Logan’s Foundation with Beam I (2004) is a statue in cast ductile iron and pine wood of a prone figure, bent down on hands and knees with a branded, coffin-like slab on his shoulders. The figure could be said to be holding up the South. The figure itself, in other words, is the foundation of the region.

Logan, who grew up in Belmont, North Carolina, and now teaches studio art at the University of North Carolina at
Chapel Hill, has long been fascinated with racial iconography. He is a pleasant, cheery man whose voice nonetheless conveys a passion and intensity about his belief that “American society was built on the backs of slaves and sharecroppers.”

Another of his pieces, By Any Other Name (2003), which is featured in the exhibition’s companion book, is a 60-inch high black mask, in the manner of the Aunt Jemima figure, with Brazil nuts standing in for the impression of facial features. The narrow strap of rusted tin that forms the facial outline came from Logan’s grandfather’s barn in Belmont. It is a perfect, disconcerting representation of Logan’s theme that we recognize ourselves and others by “clues and cues” that point to specific identities. In the Jim Crow South, Logan points out, Brazil nuts were often called “nigger toes.”

“There were ways in doing the project that we could have pulled back and gone softer,” says Stephen Hoffius, who collaborated with Mack on the editing of the companion book, “but everyone said, ‘No. We want to do this all the way. We want to make a statement.”

Black & White

Does the plantation still represent the residual concept of “home” to the racial memory of African Americans today? Mack believes it does: “The plantation landscape conjures a love-hate relationship for many of these black artists, and that complicates the issue deeply.” Among the black artists represented, it may have been E.A. Harleston who most embraced the burdens of the African American past without becoming a victim of that past.

Harleston, who also worked during the Charleston Renaissance, was a native son of mixed ancestry: the child of a white planter father and a black mother. Yet he was excluded from much of the art world because he was thought by blacks to be too white, or, alternately, by whites to be too black—a paradox that still vexes us today. Being both black and white, Harleston could look at icons of times past and see both the white view and the black view of the same scene. Through the eyes of just about any other artist, his Boone Hall Plantation (circa 1925) would most likely be pretty traditional. Harleston’s perspective has conventional elements, to be sure, yet it is a view as much of majesty as of decay, and the landscape surrounding the grand home seems almost to evaporate at the edges.

Almost 100 years ago, the great philosopher and social activist W.E.B. DuBois ruefully identified the dilemma of the African American, pulled in two directions: “One ever feels his twoness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” That conflict lies at the heart of the competing images in the Gibbes’ ambitious and complicated but ultimately soul-stirring exhibit. Mack says it’s nothing new: “It’s been one long continuing dialogue, and my job is to sustain that dialogue through works of art.” Contemporary artists, both black and white, are still working through this in some very significant ways.

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