Artist Jonathan Green will show new works at the College of Charleston’s Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, 125 Bull St., beginning Thursday.
The series is called “Unenslaved: Rice Culture Painting by Jonathan Green,” and will remain on view in the Cox Gallery through Dec. 15. An opening reception is planned for 7 p.m. Thursday.
“Unenslaved” features 25 original works of acrylic on paper that measure 11 by 14 inches. The series has long been brewing in Green’s mind, he said.
“Most pictures of African-Americans in the South don’t have a sense of culture or history, because it’s intentionally stripped away,” Green said.
So what he did was an exercise in productive fantasy. He said he created a “what if” scenario and painted scenes of people in the rice fields who choose to be there, for they are free.
It’s “a positive visual depiction” that presents the perspective of blacks, but also a combination of West African, Caribbean and European cultural influences.
“It’s part of the imagination of the artist, but it’s also an actual reality,” Green said. For when blacks are free to express their cultural inheritance, as they are today, they may do so with pride and even flamboyance.
Green’s work always has alluded to the history of slavery and rice cultivation in the Lowcountry, but this series is his first extensive, concentrated exploration of the ways in which the rice economy influenced regional culture and society.
It is a direct consequence of his involvement in the Lowcountry Rice Culture Project, an initiative that aims “to discover and revive the significance of rice cultivation and its legacies, and to use this history as a launching off point for broad discussions of race, class, art, trade, history and economics — in short, the various aspects of culture in the Southeast.”
The artist has long argued that rice is at the root of everything that the Lowcountry has become.
The labor of slaves generated great wealth for slaveowners, wealth that helped build the city of Charleston. Rice has influenced our diet, our coastal agricultural systems, race relations and the arc of history.
A symposium organized by the Rice Culture Project, scheduled for Sept. 12-14, will present these ideas at public events.
For more information, visit www.lowcountryriceculture.org.
This is not the first time rice has been the subject of a series of paintings. “A Carolina Rice Plantation of the Fifties,” an extraordinary set of 29 watercolors made in the 1930s by Charleston’s Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, exercised its influence over Green.
Smith’s work idealizes plantation life during the 1850s, portraying happy slaves and gorgeous landscapes. They are not so much an honest documentation of the period as a nostalgia-filled glance backward to a simpler time.
“They are beautiful, but they ignore the real story of the antebellum plantation,” said Gibbes Museum curator Sara Arnold.
In a sense, Green’s series also romanticizes Lowcountry life, but this time the perspective has changed, and the subjects are willing participants.
Mostly, Green wants young people to gain a new appreciation of their cultural inheritance when they look as these images, he said.
“I want young kids to be able to look at African-American people and see the culture based on history, and see them from the perspective of not being enslaved,” he said.
It is important to make a distinction between forced hard labor with no recompense and voluntary labor that enriches all people and reveals something of the multiculturalism that’s unique to the United States, Green said, noting his own genetic mix that includes, African, European and Native American elements.
“I am the perfect byproduct of ... America,” he said.
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