Most artists do not work like Jean-Marie Mauclet and Gweylene Gallimard, the French duo who ran Gaulart & Maliclet French Cafe (affectionately known as “Fast and French”) for 30 years.
Most artists work in solitude creating their pictures or objects, or they lead a team if the project requires more than a single pair of hands.
Not Mauclet and Gallimard.
They are facilitators. Cheerleaders. Social experimenters. Advocates. Critics.
They draw inspiration from the community and rely on others to help realize a common goal. That’s what they did in 1991 when they contributed a piece, “Holy City” to Spoleto Festival USA’s controversial multisite arts project, “Places With a Past.”
Even the beloved Broad Street restaurant got its start as a community arts project meant to examine the intersection between American culture (fast food) and French tastes, Gallimard said.
In the 1960s, Gallimard co-founded an artist-run gallery that challenged the status quo. That’s when her interest in community-based art first was manifested. Now she’s at it again with “conNECKted: Imaginings for Truth & Reconciliation,” an exhibit at the City Gallery.
The show is the work of the Charleston Rhizone Collective, of which Gallimard and Mauclet are a part. The Collective consists of artists, educators and activists striving to address the impacts of urban change, and “conNECKted” is their way of confronting gentrification and its effects.
Presented by the City of Charleston Office of Cultural Affairs, the show fills both floors of the gallery and amplifies the voices of people typically ignored or marginalized. The exhibit, a mashup of styles and concerns, acts as critique of policies and practices that fail to take into account the interests of the dispossessed.
The organizers hope visitors to the gallery will linger to consider the art on display, certainly, but also to engage in conversation; sit at “Imagination Tables”; write in the “Book of Grievances”; and join special workshops. They also hope people will contemplate the impacts of construction, climate change, flooding and commerce; consider the ways our schools succeed and fail; and celebrate the power of art as a form of expression.
“When people think of community art, they think of murals, but that’s not the way we think,” Gallimard said. Murals are static; they are viewed across a space. With this exhibit, "we want the space between to be filled,” Gallimard said.
The project took root in 2014, when the city of Charleston published its “Partnership for Prosperity: A Master Plan for the Neck Area of Charleston and North Charleston.” That got some people thinking, especially residents with vested interests, including LaSheia Oubre, Debra Holt and Pamella Gibbs, members of the Rhizone Collective who worked with Mauclet and Gallimard on the exhibit.
At the early community meetings to discuss the master plan for the Neck area (roughly, the stretch of land between the Ashley and Cooper rivers, from the Arthur Ravenel Bridge to I-526), Oubre noticed that few black residents were showing up and that officials intended to pursue phased redevelopment in a way that excluded many African Americans, she said. It was troubling that so few residents knew they could take a seat at the table, and that many of those who did know did not have the time or means to do so.
“If we want to be informed, we need to amplify the voices of the people who have no voice, who are not heard,” she said.
In the exhibit, viewers will find wallpaper with reproductions of postcards sent to Mayor John Tecklenburg, on which residents express concerns and hopes. They can view video interviews of local people discussing their circumstances and children asking questions.
They can contemplate the “Justice Tree” decorated with messages. They can consider a model cityscape invaded by crumpled-up bank offers for credit cards and loans and other products. They can enjoy handmade dolls and neighborhoods made by Sanders-Clyde students from construction paper and cardboard, objects that allude to the way change inexorably comes.
In one section of the show, guests can see a replica of Geraldine Butler’s dilapidated home on Indian Street, damaged by the water that runs down upon the roof from a billboard perched overhead. Butler’s many letters of complaint and legal action, on view in the exhibit, offer an example of how the poor must fight against powerful forces.
Visitors to the show can enter a booth and record memories of someone lost to violence which will be issued gently from small speakers. And they can learn about historical figures such as Robert Smalls and the black fishermen of Charleston’s Mosquito Fleet. A video featuring Gordon Joyner, one of the last living members of the fleet, is included in the show.
Local filmmaker Jason Gourdine was commissioned by Alternate Roots, a community-oriented arts advocacy organization in the Southeast, to document the exhibition. Alternate Roots (Gallimard and Mauclet are members) received an 2017 National Endowment for the Arts grant “to explore the roles of aesthetics, transformation, and organizing in the community art-making process.” Gourdine is assisting the Charleston Rhizome Collective by editing some of the video interviews conducted for the exhibition.
Organizers hope that “conNECKted” will encourage residents to engage with one another and with their political representatives in an effort to address concerns raised by gentrification. The show itself is a result of two years of listening, Debra Holt said. And more listening is planned during the course of the exhibit.
The first two weeks are dedicated to discussions about urban change. During the next two weeks, conversation will turn to ways the fabric of society and the public schools can be strengthened. The final two weeks will be devoted to dialogue about what “community” entails and how that community can impact policy.
“We don’t want to tell people what they want, but hear what they want,” Holt said. “We talk about being together but don’t often feel that we are.”
Gallimard, Oubre, Holt and Gibbs said the show will end on what they are calling a “launching weekend.” It’s akin to a college “commencement,” when students begin to implement in real life what they’ve learned during school.
“Community exists,” Gallimard said. “We are not just individuals.”