Fabulon’s Susan Irish assembles more than 20 artists for an exhibit examining race in today’s America 

A more perfect union

click to enlarge Susan Irish hopes the Charleston community will be able to come together through art

Jonathan Boncek file

Susan Irish hopes the Charleston community will be able to come together through art

Susan Irish breezes through her rambling West Ashley gallery space as if on a mission. Stepping over bags of sand and buckets of dirt, around canvases tilted against funky furniture, past empty walls waiting for art from across the country to arrive, we follow.

In one corner there’s a fractured timeline on display — murals, photographs, and paintings take up the entire gallery, each representative of different points in the country’s history. “So here we have a mural by Janet Braun-Reinitz, 'Again to the Streets.' You see all kinds of shoes, men’s boots, women’s boots, all walks of life,” says Irish. Braun-Reinitz, who explains that her pieces take an “unambiguous stand against the litany of violence and brutality they lament” was a freedom rider during the 1960s, and was even arrested in Little Rock for breaching the peace. The NYC-based artist and author chronicles the “ills of our world,” creating work that “embodies personal and art histories to complicate and intensify issues, calling us to a new kind of listening, a possibility of seeing otherwise.”

click to enlarge Meyriel Edge's portrait of Naseem, an Iranian-American; oil on wood. - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • Meyriel Edge's portrait of Naseem, an Iranian-American; oil on wood.

Hanging above this mural from a Civil Rights era artist is a photograph from the 2017 Women’s March on Washington, taken by Micheline Callicott, a teacher at Academic Magnet High School. And to the right of the photograph, a sketch of Black Lives Matter organizer Muhiyidin d'Baha tackling the Confederate flag, drawn by Lizzie Suarez days after the “it went viral” incident. There’s a troubling synchronicity at play; how far have we really come, and how much further do we have to go?

click to enlarge An abandoned swimming pool at Morris Brown College - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • An abandoned swimming pool at Morris Brown College

Irish believes we have quite a ways. The former arts teacher has invited all of Charleston’s leaders to the We the People exhibit. “The show is an artist response to racism, but there are also paintings about feminism, and transgender acceptance, and access for the disabled and acknowledgment that some prisons are making a profit at a human being’s expense and paintings about responsible gun ownership,” says Irish, “To me they are all related. At the root it’s the same issue: people look at somebody different as less than.”

Irish leads us to another Braun-Reinitz mural, a colorful display depicting a bombing; the figure at the bottom of the mural appears to be a child. Next to the mural is a photograph of a Middle Eastern man holding a doe-eyed child. He wears an “I voted” sticker. “This is the face we don’t want,” says Irish, pointing at the father, “and then the face of the child. Who could turn away this baby? And the mural — it shows that when we bomb the shit out of another country, we’re killing those babies.”

click to enlarge An abandoned desk at Morris Brown - PROVIDED
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  • An abandoned desk at Morris Brown

Walking across the gallery, we find a small space dedicated to the photography of Andrew Feiler, a fifth generation Jewish Georgian. Feiler’s latest book, Without Regard to Sex, Race, or Color, captures, in photographs, the remains of a now abandoned historically black university in Atlanta, Morris Brown College. Morris Brown was one of the few HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) founded by an African American. In light of the recent Betsy DeVos comments about HBCUs, the history and decline of Morris Brown feels significant now more than ever.

When Feiler first came across this project, he says he “didn’t know where the story would go” but knew it was an important story to tell. Feiler believes that in addition to race, this story of a forsaken campus is part of the narrative arc of public education in America. “The concept of public education in this country predates the United States of America,” says Feiler.“The first school funded by taxpayers was founded in 1644.” Three hundred and seventy three years later, this “access point to middle class America is at risk.” Feiler’s book includes 10 historic photographs taken from Morris Brown yearbooks and 60-some present day photos of the abandoned grounds. “These are spaces that are familiar to us,” says Feiler. “We have been there. They are supposed to be populated with people, not ghosts.”

With a nod to the title of the exhibit, artist Kelly Burke has reimagined the American flag in three forms: "All Lives Matter," "Black Lives Matter!," and "Don’t Lives Matter?" “These flags are intended to stimulate constructive conversations on various ways to be patriotic. I hope they also stimulate individual insights about why and how we should be more humane with one another,” says Burke.

click to enlarge Meyriel Edge portrait - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • Meyriel Edge portrait

Fabulon artist Meyriel Edge, a native of Wales, has been a permanent resident of the United states for more than 30 years. She is not a U.S. citizen, and she’s never felt threatened because of it. But as post-election discord in the country increased, Edge knew she had to contribute to Fabulon’s exhibit in some way. She started to ask her non-American friends if she could paint their portraits; Edge even came across names of people she’d doodled in her old sketchbook and reached out to them. The response was overwhelming; “I thought, ‘I have to paint fast!’” Edge will present more than 20 portraits at the March 10 show, including subjects who have Visas, Green Cards, or who have recently become citizens.

Proceeds from each piece sold at We the People will go to a fundraiser; Irish says they’re still working out the logistics, but Black Lives Matter, SURJ, We are Family, and Lutheran church Services of the Carolinas are all being considered.

Irish hopes that Fabulon’s opening night will be packed; many of the artists will be in attendance, there will be bites and beverages, and Muhiyidin d'Baha will lead a drum circle. The mediums abound — pottery, videos, murals, photography, works on paper — and you know the sand and dirt we stepped over? That will be used by an artist to construct grave mounds, recreating her family cemetery in S.C.

Fabulon’s owner will also have two pieces on display: "Lack of Critical Thinking"and "Lazy Language." Irish, who has high hopes for the turnout, and for the Charleston community to come together, explains that she’s OK with any step forward, even the ones that don’t make headline news: “I think that maybe some people aren’t going to march. Maybe they won’t hold a flag or make a sign. But you can think twice about words you use, expressions you use. What you read and who you’re listening to. You can change your language.”


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