The Things We Carry: Contemporary Southern Art at the Gibbes Museum of Art, Charleston, SC

by Arden Cone 


When I moved above the Mason Dixon line, I came forewarned: there would be culture shock. But as I settled into Boston’s pace of life, I never found the stereotype I had drawn for myself. (I’m sure there are plenty of unapproachable, inhospitable, Yankee-talking fools out there, but I haven’t run into one). The shock that I found was subtler. It had no disturbing accent, for it was unspoken. It was an absence in conversation, and it surrounded the issue of race.

 Sonya Clark,  Unraveled Confederate Flag,  Photo Credit: Lou Hammond & Associates

Sonya Clark, Unraveled Confederate Flag, Photo Credit: Lou Hammond & Associates

Take a walk through the streets of Charleston, SC, and it must be your mind. The legacy of slavery has affected the demographic of our city today. Current issues of racial violence and gentrification are intricately intertwined with our slave-trading past.

On May 28, 2016, The Gibbes Museum of Art opened its first exhibition in two years. With renovations complete, they were set to apply a sense of directness appropriate only to Southern culture. The exhibition, curated by Pam Wall, is entitled The Things We Carry: Contemporary Art in the South. It is a straightforward response to last year’s shooting at the Mother Emanual AME Church during which nine parishioners were killed. Works of art by Bo Bartlett, William Christenberry, Sonya Clark, Andrea Keys Connell, Deborah Luster, Sally Mann, Stephen Marc, Mike Smith, Damian Stamer, and Stacy Lynn Waddell fill the newly restored space, taking on the baggage we hold in the American South.

One work by Sonya Clark, Unraveled Confederate Flag, confronts the very issue that was brought to light in the aftermath of the Charleston shooting: that of the confederate flag on statehouse grounds. Over time, she took on the action of unraveling a Confederate flag, thread by thread. The flag has been reduced to piles of red, white, and blue thread. Interestingly, Clark showed the a similar unraveled flag at Mixed Greens Gallery (New York City) last June; however, it looked quite different:

 Sonya Clark,  Unraveled Confederate Flag  as shown in Mixed Greens Gallery (NYC), Photo Credit: Hyperallergic

Sonya Clark, Unraveled Confederate Flag as shown in Mixed Greens Gallery (NYC), Photo Credit: Hyperallergic

Then partially unraveled and now fully unraveled, the flag’s message is hopeful. Though we can’t undo history, we can unravel the structures and symbols that have kept us in hideous tangles for so many years.

Other artists such as Stacy Lynn Waddell and Bo Bartlett addressed gun violence in America. Bartlett’s painting, The School of the Americas, did this by way of an open-ended narrative. A look at the canvas reveals four adolescent figures void of life. A pool of blood here and a swollen limb there are among the indicators of this truth, but, as in many violent scenes, there is no explanation. We can only guess. Perhaps these young figures are victims of yet another shooting, even a school shooting, the title suggests.

 Bo Bartlett,  School of the Americas,  Photo Credit: Lou Hammond & Associates

Bo Bartlett, School of the Americas, Photo Credit: Lou Hammond & Associates

It is just over a year after the shooting in Charleston. Families in our community will ache forever. Is this the way our countrymen have been schooled? What they lost to the School of the Americas we will never fully comprehend.

William Christenbury’s Dream Building Ensamble, against the near wall of the exhibition, is best viewed from across the gallery. The eleven dream buildings are made with wood, encaustic and red clay soil. The red clay is emblematic of the South to anyone who has driven past its plowed fields, so impossibly saturated with color. Christenbury, however, has used only the soil’s textural qualities, choosing to paint the surface white. The dream buildings reach high like steeples, but give off a human presence. They are not buildings to me, rather they are Klansmen, and they scare me. My mind notes the pointed tops of the buildings, reminiscent of Ku Klux Klan hoods, but my gut feels it first.

 William Christenbury,  Dream Building Ensamble,  Photo Credit: Lou Hammond & Associates

William Christenbury, Dream Building Ensamble, Photo Credit: Lou Hammond & Associates

And that’s what I mean. In the South, no one wants to talk about race, but we feel it there when we avoid it in conversation. It sits like a cannonball. Northerners may not have to feel it like we do, but, together, we can start the conversation. We are all Americans in an empire built by the disenfranchised and the privileged alike. Talk about race here is never out of the blue.

I tip my hat to the Gibbes Museum of Art for approaching the haunting dichotomy that is the South. The exhibition, so moving in its directness, is on view until October 9th, 2016. For more information, visit the Gibbes’ website here.