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How artists and arts institutions lead the conversation on race in America

Colin Quashie’s 80-by-63-inch canvas called "Strom's Song: Looked Away, Looked Away, Looked Away Dixieland" shows the face of Strom Thurmond superimposed over an image of the Confederate flag and two Black men hanging from ropes. Assembled below are certain prominent people of South Carolina, including one black man, who supported flying of the flag atop the state Capitol.

When the painting was included in a 1994 show arranged by the S.C. Arts Commission and hosted by the College of Charleston's Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, it nearly cost Halsey Director Mark Sloan his job.

A sitting legislator was on campus for a meeting, learned of the painting, which included him among the figures depicted, and demanded that then-President Alex Sanders fire the person responsible, according to Sloan. This was slander and insubordination, the legislator argued. (Sanders has said he can neither recall the details of the incident nor dispute Sloan’s account.)

After considering the matter and talking with Sloan while the man awaited action, Sanders defended the decision to display the painting.

Looked Away ... Dixieland (Strom's Song)

"Strom's Song: Looked Away, Looked Away, Looked Away Dixieland" by Colin Quashie. The painting stirred terrific controversy when it was shown at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art in 1994. Colin Quashie/Provided

"A college campus is a place for the free and open exchange of ideas," Sanders told the legislator, according to Sloan, who had been listening to the conversation through Sanders' speaker phone. "If we can't discuss these issues here, where can they be discussed?”

Six years later, the flag was relocated from the Capitol dome to an area in front of the building, the result of a compromise that left many disappointed. In 2015, after the murder of nine members of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, state legislators agreed to remove the flag altogether.

That decision had nothing to do with Quashie's painting, of course, but it does illustrate how artists tend to broach issues of concern even when it's not very popular to do so. Artists always are ahead of the times, but now and again the times catch up to them.

The Black Lives Matter movement has gathered momentum since the May 25 killing of George Floyd, focusing attention on endemic discrimination and racial disparities. A growing number of Americans now seem willing to confront difficult questions about their country and its policies, past and present. Artists and many arts organizations have been leading this conversation for a long time.

One reason is that it doesn’t take painters and photographers long to create something in response to events, according to Harriett Green, director of visual arts at the South Carolina Arts Commission. It generally takes a lot longer for social phenomena to manifest in novels or ballets.

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Teenagers protest George Floyd's killing at a gathering on Charleston's East Side on Sunday, June 14, 2020. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

Plus the visual arts make a bigger impact on our brain, according to science. We remember what we see better than what we hear or read because an image prompts us to make many associations, effectively creating a kind of instant personal context that helps to embed the artwork and its subject matter in our memory.

“(Visual artists) have the ability to create images that shape perception, that create narrative, and these images can then have a big role, or be used in ways that change people’s minds or allow them to see things differently,” explained Angela Mack, director of the Gibbes Museum of Art. "They’ve been using that ability for a long, long time.”

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Cookie Washington presented a quilt called "Walking Toward Peace" to former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder at the 2018 Charleston Branch NAACP Freedom Fund Gala. File/Staff

When this special talent to communicate important ideas visually converges with acute social crisis, the results can range from passively philosophical to aggressively provocative.

“If you see it, you have a much better chance of taking it in,” said Charleston textile artist Torreah “Cookie” Washington. “I do think we (artists) have a very important job.”

Washington is among a number of South Carolina artists who have found ways to express ideas and concerns about social justice issues in their work.

Orangeburg-based batik artist Leo Twiggs, 86, has spent a long career as a painter and educator examining social issues. He has made a series on the Confederate flag, and another of using the target as a motif. He has examined Black ancestry and represented the impacts of Hurricane Hugo in 1989 on the Black community.

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"Targeted Man Running" by Leo Twiggs. File/Provided

Columbia-based multimedia artist Michaela Pilar Brown explores perceptions of “the body through the prisms of age, gender, race, sexuality and history.”

The late Charleston-born painter and collector Merton Simpson, reacting to the Harlem riot of 1964, created his shocking “Confrontation” series of large, expressionistic images, made with thick paint and broad brush strokes, of white and Black individuals arguing face to face.

Jonathan Green has sought to represent Black people of the Lowcountry's Sea Islands as they possess agency and a strong sense of cultural pride.

'Promiseland' exhibition at the Aiken-Rhett House

A large-scale drawing by Fletcher Williams III featuring pickets from fences, displayed in the drawing room of the Aiken-Rhett House earlier this year. It was part of a show called "Promiseland." Historic Charleston Foundation/Provided 

Fletcher Williams III, a young Charleston artist, has been examining issues of gentrification, appropriation and place using found objects, palmetto roses and other items that reference the Southern social and cultural landscape. His last show, “Promiseland,” riffed on the concept of the white picket fence and its meanings.

These and many other artists are responding to current events and social phenomena and, in so doing, showing us new ways of perceiving and interpreting the world around us.

“Artists put a lot of the viewing public in an uncomfortable position,” Green noted. “People are embracing the moment. They are willing to be more uncomfortable.”

Antennae of civilization

Quashie said the size and diversity of recent Black Lives Matter protests have warmed his heart. They indicate a growing consensus, at least among young people, that injustice must be confronted now, he said.

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“Kids are arguing with parents and grandparents,” he noted. “It’s absolutely incredible. I’m impressed by the passion and longevity of it.”

Years ago, Quashie examined commercial appropriation and misuse of black culture, creating images of an Aunt Jemima pancake mix box and an Uncle Ben’s rice box. Last month, the Mars and Quaker Oats companies announced they would change their product branding in response to the Black Lives Matter movement.

In the second half of 2019, the Halsey Institute mounted Quashie’s exhibition “Linked,” which included an image of workers preparing to take down the John C. Calhoun statue in Marion Square. On June 24, the statue really did come down.

“A lot of my old artwork has broken out of storage and is running around the city,” Quashie said. “Society is finally starting to catch up with some of the positions I have held in art over the past 20 years. I’m trying to imagine where this will go in the next 20 years.”

Sloan said the Halsey Institute often shows work of social criticism. A 2016 exhibition of works by Atlanta-based artist Fahamu Pecou called “DO or DIE: Affect, Ritual, Resistance” examined violence against Black people. A 2019 show by Katrina Andry called “Over There and Here is Me and Me” considered race-based stereotyping and forces of gentrification. And there have been many others, including “Southbound,” a sprawling two-venue photography show that peered into many of the South’s hidden corners.

“Artists are often the antennae of civilization,” Sloan said. “They identify things before the rest of the culture sees them.” They open our eyes and foster conversation, usually with help from institutions eager to engage a curious public.

Sloan said these institutions are now caught up in a long-overdue national reckoning. Many of them need to look inward and make changes in how they are organized, who sits on their governing boards, how they secure funding, how they might diversify their staffs and more.

“But a lot of institutions and artists have been paying attention to this (need for a reckoning) for decades,” he said. “From a programmatic standpoint, there’s nothing in the state, or really in the region, that does the same diverse programming that we do.”

Fahamu Pecou

Artist Fahamu Pecou's 2018 show at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art examined race relations and cultural identity. File/Provided

Turning points

Columbia-based artist Tyrone Geter said he doesn’t like to hit viewers over the head with explicit messages; he prefers allusion and inference, he wants leave room for interpretation — even if social crisis often does inform his work. He’s afraid that a too-explicit social critique could cause uncomfortable viewers to stop looking, he said.

Author pic

Tyrone Geter. Provided  

Nevertheless, Geter has been making dramatic images — using charcoal, ink, pastel and collage — that reference a speech by Sojourner Truth, current politics, and climate change, among other issues. The ideas bubble up from his subconscious, he said. The good ones assert themselves in his mind until he opens his easel.

Guided by emotion and intuition, he draws, hoping to express, and to inspire, empathy for others, Geter said.

“The very best (artists) have made their concern for people — not just Black people — central to their work.”

Empathy also has been the goal at the Gibbes, Mack said. The objective of showing art concerned with racial justice is to encourage viewers to look through a different lens, to step into someone else’s shoes, she said.

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Columbia-based artist Tyrone Geter generally likes to invite interpretation, but sometimes current events drive him to create images with unambiguous messages. This work is titled "A Trio of Friends." Tyrone Geter/Provided

In the 1970s, the museum began to show works by individual Black artists of South Carolina in earnest: William H. Johnson in 1974, Leo Twiggs in 1976, Yvonne Pickering Carter in 1978. Then it began to mount traveling shows, such as “Forever Free” in 1981, which highlighted Black sculptors. The following year, the Gibbes displayed art by Sam Doyle.

By the 1990s, the Gibbes was mounting shows that placed Black artists in a larger context. It featured works from the Harmon Foundation collection in an exhibit called “Against the Odds”; and then shared the Walter Evans Collection of African American Art, as well as the collection of Jonathan Green and Richard Weedman, which included a wide array of works by 20th century Black painters and sculptors.

“One of the turning points was the ‘Landscape of Slavery’ in 2008,” Mack recalled. “It was meant primarily to understand Southern landscape in the context of the larger American landscape of art history. What we realized very quickly, it was about as much as what was left out as it was about Romanticism. ... The second big turning point was ‘Prop Master.’ We took a page out of Fred Wilson and created our own version of ‘Mining the Museum.’”

Prop Master (copy)

"Prop Master: An Installation by Juan Logan and Susan Harbage Page" featured five main elements: displays called "Sexually Ambiguous" and "Famous Last Names," a large platform representing the Gibbes collection of art, a projected video and columns wrapped with printed images (unseen). File/Provided

That installation by Juan Logan and Susan Harbage Page was a brutally honest interpretation of the Gibbes’ holdings and history. It brought to the surface the institution’s ingrained biases and its failures, revealing at the same time aspects of Charleston culture that generally are hidden away or ignored. It was the museum’s great reckoning with its identity, mission and history.

Since then, the Gibbes has added many works by Black artists to its collection, hosted public conversations about race and art, provided support to local artists, acknowledged an array of noteworthy artists through its 1858 Prize for Contemporary Southern Art, and more.

Institutional change is necessary everywhere, but it can’t be accomplished without confronting the past, Mack said.

“Visual arts and museums have been representing this material for a long time,” she said. “What hasn’t happened is people taking it seriously and using it to learn and move forward. The expressions have been there. People just have to look.”

Contact Adam Parker at aparker@postandcourier.com or 843-937-5902.

Adam Parker has covered many beats and topics for The Post and Courier, including race in America, religion, and the arts. He is the author of "Outside Agitator: The Civil Rights Struggle of Cleveland Sellers Jr.," published by Hub City Press.

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