The Visions of Home, a collection of art hailing from the coastal regions of South Carolina, is on display at Wake University in Winston-Salem this month, and will be until late April. The display is nestled in a small corner room in the university’s Anthropology museum, and is a fascinating look into the Gullah Culture, a mostly African American community in coastal South Carolina, over two hundred years ago.
The Gullah people are mostly descended from slaves and settled in coastal regions after they were transported to the Americas, more specifically the area that became South Carolina, and their artwork focuses heavily on their rural lifestyle covering a broad history of the people.
Amongst the displays are many paintings that show the Gullah people fishing on the rivers and in deltas and floodplains, almost exclusively using mesh nets and fishing rods. Interestingly, many of the people in the over 70 paintings, a vast majority of the works of art in the display, were devoid of most identifying facial features such as eyes, nostrils or mouths and are, instead, almost silhouettes, even ones that are close-ups, for example “Dandelion,” which focuses on a middle-aged African American woman blowing on a dandelion and the seeds taking flight. The Gullah people farming is also a recurring act in these paintings as well, with everything from hand-driven plows to tractors appearing in the depictions of the Gullah people performing this necessary action.
Landscapes are (from what was displayed) a popular artistic subject, because on display were paintings of the South Carolina coastal region (an area dominated by marshlands), complete with water grasses and weeping willows. Several paintings were dedicated to religious scenes, most notably “Second Sunday,” which displays a beautifully drawn white chapel in a pasture, “Beautiful House of Praise,” which is set inside a church and “Baptism in the Village Creek,” which focuses on several members of the community, dressed its resplendent white robes, performing a baptism in a river under a weeping willow.
The collection also seems to display about two hundred years of Gullah history in snapshots. This estimate comes from a number of things portrayed in the collection. If one assumes that the more pastoral-looking paintings display the early history of the community, and dates those to the mid-eighteenth century–this date is according to the New Georgia Encyclopedia entry on Gullah and Geechee history and cultural background–then the pictures that display things like Pepsi, which hit the market at the turn of the twentieth century and cars that appear to have been released in the first half of the twentieth century mean that, as previously stated, there is about two hundred years shown in the paintings.
The horrors of slavery are not absent from the collection, as some of the most vivid paintings, which interestingly break the unspoken rule of no facial features, shows the faces of slaves on the Middle Passage, the Atlantic route from Africa to the United States that slave ships routinely traversed before the thirteenth Amendment passed. The use of eyes in these paintings is outstanding, as the terror they felt is chillingly well portrayed.
Then there were come the few pieces that aren’t paintings. In that category are metal sculptures depicting the face of a middle-aged African American woman, an interesting-looking piece whose features really pop, a patchwork quilt that, while devoid of patterns similar to the paintings the adorn the small room in which the art collection is displayed, shows that the art of the Gullah people extends beyond painting and sculpting into more practical, in the fact that they have uses beyond the aesthetic styles of art. Perhaps the most unique of these, however, is what can be described as a sort of early comic strip. The piece has two parts that clearly display a form of action with the “characters” performing actions like plowing and speaking in the creole-style language of the Gullah, using a combination of painting and cloth pieces.
The exhibit is a well worth the time of anyone interested in art, learning about African American culture or just looking for an artistic way to spend a lazy afternoon.