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Long part of American culture, Gullah artists from SC now name and reclaim their heritage

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When Ranky Tanky joyously alighted the Los Angeles Staples Center Stage last month to claim their Grammy for Best Regional Roots Music Album for “Good Time,” it represented a proud moment for Charleston and the entire state.

Charlton Singleton’s grace-filled acceptance speech was also a resonant moment for a beloved local culture. Trumpeting the origins of their sound, Singleton said, "It's an honor to be here to stand on the shoulders of our Gullah ancestry and bring this music and message to the world."

Ranky Tanky (copy) (copy)

Ranky Tanky won a 2020 Grammy for Best Regional Roots Music Album for their album powered by Gullah. Provided

That moment also perfectly captured how Gullah culture has stepped onto the national stage. It is topping Billboard charts. It is infusing high-profile operas and edgy works of music. It is the fodder of foodie television shows and the meat of Ivy League courses. It has gone global, too, with Queen Quet, chieftess and head-of-state of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, speaking on climate change at United Nations conferences around the world.

And it is a moment in which Gullah artists, scholars and champions are the ones who are driving its emergence. They are doing so by honoring long-held traditions, while also lending contemporary context and their distinct experiences growing up Gullah. 

Gullah in American culture

With or without such an explicit name check, Gullah has coursed through American culture. It has powered the pulse of rock and roll, with songs such as The Rolling Stones’ “You Gotta Move” lifted wholesale. The American camp standard "Kumbaya" goes back to Gullah. The Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess” strove to recreate Gullah in both the parlance and pastimes. 

In foodways, there is shrimp-and-grits and red rice, often lumped into a generic Southern food category or baked into cookbooks like the famous “Charleston Receipts.” 

Reclaiming the name 

So why has Gullah so often eluded commensurate recognition? With such longstanding, significant influence, why was it not firmly inserted in the mainstream vernacular along the lines of Cajun or Appalachian culture? 

"There are three things converging," said Heather Hodges, executive director of Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission. The Johns Island-based, federally funded organization aims to raise awareness of and interest in Gullah Geechee culture in coastal North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

The first factor is the prior system of archiving materials, such as those found in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, which were not marked as Gullah Geechee. It was only in 2018 that the song “Kumbaya" was identified as such with the discovery of a 1926 recording of the song “Come By Here” by a Gullah Geechee singer H. Wylie.

There is also appropriation, Hodges said. "Things that are Gullah Geechee become Southern or Lowcountry." 

And there is baggage, as Gullah people themselves once avoided terms like Gullah Geechee, as they had been used by others in a derogatory fashion, particularly during Reconstruction. "It became the practice to use the word Gullah to demean people."

Gullah goes viral

Gullah, however, is currently making up for lost time, thanks in large part to communication channels like social media, which afford most anyone, most anywhere the ability to widely share their culture.

Sunn m’Cheaux, an instructor who teaches Gullah in the African Language Program at Harvard University and also hosts, explains how social media has leveled the playing field for artists who weren’t previously able to share their culture widely.

"With the advent of the internet, you can get influences from all over the world, and export your influences," said m'Cheaux, who is from the Charleston area. "There's a lot of interaction that's happening here that's influencing Gullah and vice versa."

Take, for example, artist Ment Nelson. From the rural town of Varnville, Nelson captures in watercolor and in print daily Gullah practices. He then shares his work with 16,000 followers on Instagram and another 19,000 on Twitter.

“It cuts out the middleman,” he explained, adding that now anyone can gain access to his art.

Ment Nelson's portrait of Trump and Kanye (copy)

South Carolina artist Ment Nelson says he wants $1 million for his watercolor portrait of President Donald Trump and the musician Kanye West. Provided

In the past year, he made a significant splash by posting a work of President Donald Trump with Kanye West and pricing it at $1 million.

“Ment also created a presence for himself by way of social media,” said m’Cheaux. "He's taken South Carolina on his back and made it the primary focal point of his social media presence." 

Other Gullah-related content is only a click away. A recent  “Aria Code,” podcast, for instance, involved performing artist and composer Rhiannon Giddens engaging in a nuanced discussion of Gullah Geechee in the Metropolitan Opera's production of “Porgy and Bess."

In it, she talks with soprano Golda Schultz and bass-baritone Eric Owens, and also includes Victoria Smalls, a Gullah woman and the director of art, history and culture at the Penn Center in St. Helena, and Naomi Andre, a University of Michigan professor and author of “Black Opera: History, Power, Engagement.”

According to Hodges, deep dives that involve people who truly understand the culture are the key to such meaningful discourse.

Ment Nelson

"A World Away," 2020, is a work of watercolor on paper that is part of an exhibition at Meyer Vogl Gallery. Provided 

Beyond the baskets

In Charleston today, the arts offerings influenced by Gullah are both plentiful and distinct. "We have heard from a lot of younger Gullah Geechee people who grew up further inland that part of what they hope to achieve with their art is to disabuse people of the notion that all Gullah Geechee people have the same lived experience." 

Works of art explore the culture in ways beyond iconic aspects like sweetgrass basketmaking and praise houses, which are the cultural components most frequently valorized. Instead, they often mine experiences such as racism, economic injustice and political disenfranchisement.

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Since artist Jonathan Green gained prominence some three decades ago by way of his vivid, effusive Sea Island paintings, visual artists have continued to demonstrate the fluidity of the form that spans regions and generations. 

"We see on a regular basis a lot of artists who are taking inspiration from traditional Gullah Geechee culture and creating new works," said Hodges. 

At Neema Gallery, for example, the two-part exhibition, “Growing Up Gullah: The Artistry of Dana Coleman," will span February and March. Part I runs through Feb. 20 and Part II opens on March 6 with a reception featuring a special musical guest during the March Artwalk.

Artist Dana Coleman

Gullah artist Dana Coleman's work is the subject of a two-part exhibition at Neema Gallery. Neema Gallery/Provided

Coleman, a Mount Pleasant-based Gullah artist, has received national recognition for his dynamic, color-saturated paintings of Gullah scenes.

Ment Nelson is currently showing his work at Meyer Vogl Gallery. Graceful watercolor paintings and prints evoke the rural Gullah experience, dignifying the everyday practices from picking peas in fields to gutting fish. 

Ment Nelson's 'Unhooked, 2020"

Artist Ment Nelson's "Unhooked," 2020, is among the works in an exhibition at Meyer Vogl Gallery. Meyer Vogl/Provided

This past January, Gullah interpretive realism painter Brother Nizar showed his exhibition, “If We Could Talk About It, I Wouldn't Have to Paint About It," at the Voice of Hope Church and Worship Center in downtown Charleston. Nizar runs the African Redemptive Struggle Museum, a traveling art and research museum that bills itself as presenting “the anti-slavery, collective resistance struggle waged by Gullah people and early African Americans from 1418 to 1858.”

In the works for late March is a new exhibition by Fletcher Williams III, an artist known for giving stylized and illuminating context to politically charged icons like the Palmetto Rose.

Connected with the past

"In a sense, Gullah is connected to a period of time, but it is also a living, breathing culture that continues to grow and evolve with each generation," said m'Cheaux.

Traditional Gullah artists remain a vital part of the scene. Hodges has seen a great deal of interest among contemporary artists and audiences in standard bearers such as the McIntosh County Shouters or the Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters.

On Feb. 23, the "Awakening of the Ancestors Through Music" event at Wesley United Methodist Church on Johns Island explores how Gullah ancestors guided its people's lives through music.

Fletcher Williams III artwork (copy) (copy)

"Disoriented" by Fletcher Williams symbolizes the fragmentation of community. File/Staff

"There is a strong sense of collective identity, a strong sense of a shared heritage," said Hodges, noting that of any group of African Americans, the Gullah Geechee hold the greatest number of African cultural retentions, and it is part of daily life to be an extension of the people who came before.

In m'Cheaux's childhood, he recalls Gullah parents regularly referencing the lessons of the elders. "They would always invoke the elders before imparting the knowledge they got from the elders." 

Gullah going wide

Throughout the country, artists are engaging with Gullah. In 2018, Trinidadian jazz trumpeter and composer Etienne Charles was commissioned to compose "Gullah Roots," parts of which will be performed in Charleston on May 16. The pioneering Kronos Quartet has enlisted Charlton Singleton for its “50 for the Future” project.

This July, Cincinnati Opera will present “Castor and Patience,” an opera with a libretto by Tracy K. Smith, the United States poet laureate, who had spent time in the corridor, an enterprise Hodges encourages.

With all the outside interest, m'Cheaux points out that it is excellence from Gullah people that is the driver of it. "Ranky Tanky's not necessarily benefiting from a renewal of interest in Gullah culture. Ranky Tanky's a part of the reason there's a renewal of interest in Gullah culture."

Ment Nelson's 'Pickin' Peas, 2020'

Artist Ment Nelson's "Pickin' Peas," 2020, is among the works in an exhibition at Meyer Vogl Gallery. Meyer Vogl Gallery/Provided

Gullah people are themselves creating the narrative, and are thus able to add the compelling, secret ingredient — and to take the proper credit for doing so.

"We've been so humble it's been to our detriment," m'Cheaux said. 

At Harvard, he was similarly able to break barriers. "It was us taking it upon ourselves to raise ourselves up."

With such increasing prevalence, there is always the specter of appropriation or commodification.

“That horse has already left the barn,” said m’Cheaux, citing language, style and food. “I think that preservation doesn't necessarily mean isolation." 

In the Met Opera podcast, Aria Code, Victoria Smalls spoke of growing up Gullah on St. Helena Island. “My first language was Gullah and I stopped because if I just went seven miles inland, people would laugh at me.”

At the Penn Center, Smalls now devotes her days to promoting and preserving the Gullah she once played down.

“I lost a lot of it because I was ashamed,” she said.

“So some aspects of our culture are diminishing and some of it is resilient. It’s a word that I love when I talk about my culture: resilient.”

Follow Maura Hogan on Twitter at @msmaurahogan.

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