Sunday, June 3, 2012

Spoleto Art Review

Special to The Post and Courier
Who gets to tell the story?

That’s the question posed on a slip of paper in a tray under one of the photographs in D.H. Cooper’s and Jonell Pulliam’s “Ask and Tell.”

It is a pertinent question, and one that for decades has been asked and answered by the vibrant, eclectic and flourishing art produced by African Americans.

The Art Institute of Charleston’s “Manifesting Memory: Plantation Legacies of the South” and the Gibbes Museum’s “Places for the Spirit: Traditional African-American Gardens of the South” address race and history while acknowledging and celebrating African-American heritage.

Perhaps it’s disingenuous to call “Manifesting Memory” a celebration, as the small exhibit is a reflection of contemporary attitudes toward the atrocities of slavery.

While much of the art treats the historical subject matter somberly, Colin Quashie’s work takes an irreverent approach. His giant painted “screenshot” of Harriet Tubman’s Twitter feed, called “Follow Me,” and a complete slavery-themed “Plantation Monopoly” game are startling.

To see slavery referenced in contemporary social media and popular culture is so bizarre that you almost forget the historical context of the work.

In “Ask and Tell,” Cooper and Pulliam have visitors write questions and place them in dishes under photographs of the two artists, one white and one black. The questions are noticeably different.

The gardens of Vaughn Sills’ exhibit at the Gibbes aren’t full of topiaries or tended rows of roses; the folk gardens are seemingly littered with inorganic objects and bric-a-brac, sometimes with nary a bloom to be seen.

It’s the design of the gardens and their link to African heritage that are important, not their aesthetic appeal. The documentation of the gardens and their caretakers, and the use of exclusively black and white photography, recall Dorothea Lange and New Deal photography.

Sills doesn’t use photography to make pleasing compositions but to capture a fleeting glimpse of the fading tradition of African-American folk gardens and the culture they embody.

Art tells the African-American story in ways other forms of storytelling cannot. With disparate objects and media, the art of these exhibits invites introspection and honors heritage.

Rebecca Seel is a Newhouse School graduate student.

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