Art Institute of Charleston ponders plantation life 

What's in a Name?

In the modern South, the word plantation can be found cropping up everywhere. What was once used to describe the wealthy estates of Southern farmers is now plastered on apartment complexes, street names, golf courses, and neighborhood subdivisions. This idea got the folks at the Art Institute of Charleston thinking: What exactly is a plantation? And more importantly, what role can art play in the connection between land and the 21st century?

These questions sparked the concept for the Art Institute of Charleston's group exhibit, Manifesting Memory: Plantation Legacies of the South, in which eight local contemporary artists will explore the concept of the plantation from their unique perspectives. "The idea was to start a dialogue, providing a sneak peek into a visual conversation," says AI Faculty and Gallery Chair Jonell Pulliam. "It asks us to consider what a plantation actually is. Is it a historic house or a new and desirable subdivision? Is it a symbol of a simpler time in a bygone era or a landmark of unspeakable atrocities?"

Artists featured in the invitational exhibit include AI faculty members DH Cooper, Mary Johnson, Kim McHenry-Williams, Lynne Riding, and Jonell Pulliam, as well as Michaela Pilar Brown, Juan Logan, and Colin Quashie, who also explored the plantation concept at a recent Redux exhibition. Manifesting Memory will feature a mix of new and existing works by the artists, including abstract paintings, photography, fabric moldings, and at least one installation.

"It's not really a constructed conversation about the plantation as it is an artist taking their own position after hearing the word plantation or their own concept about plantations," Pulliam says. "Some artists take more of a political position, while some use humor to have a conversation about the word plantation and the place that it holds in society."

Artist DH Cooper contributed two pieces for the show that she hopes will initiate some dialogue. The first is a table runner embroidered with the words "guilt" and "shame." "To me these words are a living legacy leftover from colonialism and slavery, the emotional repercussions that have been left from that," she says. "And having it draped on a table, it will basically be an invitation for the viewers to think and to question and to maybe even have a dialogue about that."

Her second piece is a collaboration with Pulliam featuring photos of each of them in front of local plantation Drayton Hall. Beneath each piece will be a box where viewers can submit questions to be addressed during the opening reception and posted later in the show. "I'm kind of hoping that there will be some honest questions that push the envelope a little bit," Cooper says. "I know here in Charleston ... everyone likes to be nice and polite, but I think sometimes you have to push beyond that and get to the nitty gritty of things. That's where real healing takes place, where we can move forward into the future."

Abstract artist Lynne Riding says her concept of the Southern plantation required a little digging. Growing up in the U.K., many of her ideas of plantation life came from schoolbooks. After recently spending time at Magnolia Plantation, Riding produced two pieces for the exhibit based on research, rubbings, and sketches she did on site. "Besides what you learn from books in school, so much doesn't hit you until you're out there in the marsh and mud working," Riding says.

Riding's new work for the exhibit maintains the same subtle and simplistic style seen in much of her other abstract work. One piece features found objects and ink drawings on a white background, while her other larger piece uses soil to deal with ideas of family history on the plantation. "My work is always about sense of place and the emotion that's brought out of that," she says. "I hope these pieces will give a sense of history and moving on. I want it to give a positive feeling with a sense of the future. I want it to be thoughtful but uplifting."


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