Behind Charleston's facade

Chapel Hill artists' work reveals the racial divide in the city

CorrespondentMay 17, 2009 

  • The Gibbes Museum of Art

    The installation is at the The Gibbes Museum of Art until July 19. The museum is 135 Meeting St., Charleston. 843-722-2706, www.gibbesmuseum.org

To outsiders, Charleston, S.C., seems like something of a museum piece, an idyllic portrait of a bygone era of manners and at least the appearance of racial harmony.

Now the city's Gibbes Museum is presenting an exhibition that examines that perception and its own role in sustaining the image. Juan Logan and Susan Harbage Page, an interracial married couple who are on the UNC-Chapel Hill art faculty, spent nine months fact-finding to create "Prop Master," a compelling reconfiguration of the main gallery within the Gibbes.

Their work uses the museum's own collection, combined with site-specific works Logan and Page created separately and jointly to investigate Charleston's carefully cultivated façade of leisure and charm. The artworks reveal a disturbing side lurking below the polished surface in which slavery, abuse, overt and covert racial and sexual discrimination reverberate to the present day.

"I wanted a really fresh look at the Gibbes and how that defines us and our city and our community," said museum executive director Angela Mack. "In a way, Susan and Juan represent so many aspects of our community, it seemed like the way to go."

Logan, a black artist, has long taken on the subject of race and social status in American society, creating strong challenges to the status quo. Page, who is white, has also been deeply involved with social issues, including a body of work that has examined and redefined women's issues.

Black faces in front

As part of the "Famous Names" series included in the show, Page photographed African-American descendants of slaves and slave-owners at the historic Mills House Hotel, just next door to the Gibbes. As a place that would have historically denied access to African-American guests, the setting had a special subtext for its subjects. Page printed these portraits in monumental scale on canvas, framing them in elaborate gilded frames she found in the museum's collection, where they are hung amongst portraits and miniatures of historically significant Charlestonians.

"I think they just claim their space," Page said of the majestic portraits that place African-American faces front and center in a place from which they had been excluded.

She also contributed oddly wrapped cloth bundles, which appear under pieces of historic furniture from a plantation. The cotton bundles are actually Ku Klux Klan hoods from the 1920s, given to Page. Page has previously created a body of work based on the Klan hood, showing it in various fabrics, worn by men and women of all races, underlining the covert racism implicit in today's society.

Logan sets about debunking what he describes as the myth of Charleston.

"Charleston has been romanticized as a wonderful place full of wonderful people," he said. "Tourism is based on that romantic idea. Charleston lives in our heads and in our minds." .

To that end, he contributes an imagined portrait of Denmark Vesey, free black leader of a failed 1822 Charleston slave rebellion whose history was suppressed, which hangs above paired portraits of the Alstons, of prominent white Charleston lineage.

Stylized in black and white

One of the facts discovered while working on the project was that in 150 years of collecting, the Gibbes had acquired 10,000 works of art, only 40 of which were by African-American artists. Even the portraits of blacks were by white artists.

"Even that serves as a 'prop,' suggesting we were all good and kind and treated them [African-Americans] well," he said.

Logan and Page created "Prop Allocations or Accents for Gracious Living" based on this statistic, utilizing simple white and black glazed paper gift boxes as stand-ins for each work of art in the Gibbes. Ten thousand of these boxes, carefully folded by museum volunteers, line a black platform and demonstrate, chronologically, the acquisition of works by the museum.

In an astonishing tile-like effect, the sea of white cubes is barely punctuated by a few black squares, those at the end of the central exhibition area enclosed by columns meant to cue plantation architecture. One of the boxes is veiled, representing the fact that the first acquisition of African-American art at the museum was inadvertent -- in a large gift portfolio, one of the artworks was by black artist Merton Simpson, unbeknownst to the museum.

Page alters miniatures to create sexually ambiguous portrait imagery, alluding to other aspects of Charleston society that were hidden, unspoken realities. There is more than an occasional note of levity in these portraits, meant to balance the gravity of other issues. These miniatures are presented in frames donated to the project from an open community call to which the public enthusiastically responded, Mack said.

Logan has created a subtle stencil based on stereotyped African-American models such as the "mammy," which decorates the gallery in a classic designer color known as "Lancaster Whitewash." Beneath this wall decoration, Page has created a frieze with the repeated image of a woman handing a plate to a man -- summing up for her the anonymous labor society expects a woman to provide for a man -- and that the museum has historically required for its running.

Logan has also made a 4 1/2-minute video loop including digitally altered samples from Disney's "Song of the South," D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation," and Klan marches of the 1920s, which plays in the center of the room within a framework of Logan's signature silhouetted head. A voice can be heard incanting "Welcome Home," the video's title, while a carriage pulls up to a plantation's columned façade. Image and sound are ironically juxtaposed, as when "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah," the Disney tune from "Song of the South" plays over Ku Klux Klan scenes from "Birth of a Nation." As the song "Dixie" winds down slowly, Klansmen ride off into the sunset.

The past on view

Page says their intention was to bring the controversies to the forefront, not keep them in the past. "So I think we've created an interesting question," she says. "What will the museum do now that we've raised the issue?"

Mack says that process has already begun.

"The Gibbes started navigating differently several years ago," Mack said. "The selection committee decided to create more diversity in the collection." Previous exhibitions of diverse artists include a 1974 show of acclaimed black artist William H. Johnson, and an important 1979 exhibit representing African-American artists. The museum has also acquired several pieces of Logan's work.

Though some might interpret the current installation negatively, for Mack, "Prop Master" is a statement of hope. The exhibition itself called upon a receptive community for active participation.

"It's important that we don't provide these exhibitions as passive experiences," she said. "Art can do that if there's ownership to it. Look, we're a museum. We're in the business of transforming lives with art. There's the hope."

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