Section: Arts

Gullah show celebrates South Carolinian creole culture

Gullah show celebrates South Carolinian creole culture

by Victoria Ungvarsky

The Gund Gallery is singing.

Instead of the pensive silence usually associated with art galleries, a jubilant chorus singing hallelujahs resounds through the open space. The music is part of the Gund Gallery’s new exhibit, which focuses on the unique and virtually unknown Gullah culture.

In the period following the civil war, many freed slaves struggled to find their place in a society hostile to them. But St. Helena Island on the South Carolina coast fostered a home for poor former slaves to explore their experiences through art. The Gund Gallery will be displaying some of this art until March.

The exhibit features three distinct sections that highlight different aspects of life on St. Helena. The first gallery features the photographic work by Carrie May Weems, in her “Sea Island Series.” A recipient of a 2013 MacArthur Fellowship, Weems captured the lonely, dark history of the island through stark photos of abandoned homes and rickety graveyards. After all, the residents of the island lived there because they sought refuge after hundreds of years of enslavement. Weems’s work is punctuated by screen printed poetry that add a chilling reality to the decrepit and desolate buildings.

But one gallery over, the paintings come to life with bright colors and big, bold shapes. This is Sam Doyle’s Cumsee, a collection of paintings on wood that were discovered in the attic of the local school, the first school for emancipated slaves in the United States. His paintings depict religious scenes, such as his triptych of the crucifixion of Christ, or typical snapshot of Island life. His self-portrait is one of the most striking pieces, a crude but earnest look at the artist, set against a bright turquoise background. The self-taught artist may lack the refined skills of other artists, but he captures the jubilant and earnest spirit of Gullah life.

The final room in the exhibit showcases unconventional art: quilts, woven baskets, and ceramics. These are the practical parts of life on St. Helena, things less often seen as art. The quilts are irregular patches of color and patterns, yet they are beautiful in their imperfections. These materials are the backbone of Gullah culture, what defined every day life and at the intersection of culture and day-to-day life is this distinct art. In the film room near by, an old film plays, a group of people singing religious folk songs. It is not a formal choir, rather just ordinary people singing songs of freedom and happiness, the kind of happiness that characterizes the culture.

As their voices flood the Gund Gallery, it is clear that this exhibit is a celebration. It represents a release from oppression, a happiness so utterly transcendent that it can only be captured in full by all senses working in tandem. It is the bright colors and harsh shapes of Sam Doyle’s pictures of suppression and hope. It is the haunting photos remembering a past long gone, lost to the encroachment of society. As the chorus sings hallelujah once more and claps to the beat of their hearts, you can feel the spirit of St. Helena. Gullah culture is a culture of freedom with a weighty past that keeps its inhabitants grounded, but never stops their spirit from soaring.

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