It’s easy to get lost in City Gallery. It’s easy to get lost, even, on the way to the gallery. So many distractions: the waterfront, for one, with its famed pineapple fountain. The benches placed beneath well-pruned palms, the grass lush and inviting for families, couples, picnickers. When you finally tear yourself away from the surrounding scenery and trek up the steps to the imposing gallery building, capacious and bright — two stories worth of artistic exploration — when you finally make it there, you need a map to navigate. Nooks and crannies and always the windows beckoning, “look at our beautiful city!” But within the four walls, amidst the nooks and crannies and around the corners, up the stairs, there’s so much more to see, beyond the glittering water and towering palms.
In Charleston Rhizome’s Collective’s conNECKted: Imaginings for Truth and Reconciliation, there lies the entire city, mapped out, made from wood and canvas and paint and words. The map does not delineate specific landmarks or neighborhoods or roads. Instead, it asks: Where do we go from here?
“It’s taken almost three years, the entire process,” says Charleston Rhizome Collective member La’Sheia Oubre. Oubre, along with Collective members Gwylene Gallimard, Jean-Marie Mauclet, Pamella Gibbs, and Debra Holt, have been filling City Gallery with installation pieces, from tiny cardboard models of peninsula schools and houses crafted by first graders, to intricate, large-scale wooden buildings built by Mauclet. The installations address racism, gentrification, interconnectivity, reconciliation, and belonging.
There’s wallpaper made up of 100 postcards, sent by 100 different Lowcountry denizens to Mayor Tecklenburg during his first 100 days in office; there are video elements, too. One corner of the gallery will screen interviews the Collective filmed with locals about the issue of gentrification. Another section of the gallery will have TVs playing interviews with James Simmons middle school students. The students ask questions, staring boldly into the camera: “Why do people criticize other people if they just met them?” “Why do girls criticize other girls?” On the other side of the wall, another TV plays questions asked by adults: “If you won the lottery and it was 200 million dollars what would be the first three things you would do?” “How do you think the world is going to change in the next 15 years?” “What brings you joy, what makes you happy?”
“This project was put together by a collective,” says Mauclet. “We don’t live in a consensus, we all have our specialties, we meet in the middle, and that’s what you get. What we hope is that the visuals will give people a boost, a direction to move. The thing is conceived to be developing, finding its core in the course of the five weeks. This is not an answer to anything. We have chosen formats for dialogues that are not trying to convince anyone.”
Upon entering the gallery, visitors are greeted with a harsh reality. To the left, tiny wooden houses, decorated with quotes from the people who live there: “There was a developer wanting to buy everything … I was not crying because I was afraid. I started crying because I was getting visuals of older people being put in my position. And that they stood there just as I stood there offering their house, you know, that they had for all these years.”
The historic rice mill towers over the homes of locals who have lived in the area for decades. “The rice mill is preserved,” says Gallimard, “but the small houses where some people live are not preserved.” To the right stands the facade of a huge new-build home — 100 times the size of the old home models — the likes you might find off of upper-King or Meeting St. Further down the room, there is a another house, made of wood and metal and blue tarp. It’s falling apart. And it’s real.
“This is Geraldine Butler’s house,” says Holt. The house is anywhere between 100 and 150 years old, sitting beneath overgrown bushes and trees at the end of Indian St. The road dead-ends at the I-26 overpass. “This was Geraldine’s family home,” says Holt. “But there’s a billboard they put above it, and every time it rains, all these years, the water’s been pouring on it.” Holt says the house is meant to spark conversation: “We built it to ask ‘How do you help neighbors in the community?'”
Upstairs, the gallery installation focuses on education, with student projects lining the walls. Gibbs, Holt, and Oubre are all teachers, and they realize how important it is to engage young Charlestonians in these big-picture conversations. Gibbs said that after the Emanuel AME murders, she had her summer school children work on getting their feelings out. The feelings became poetry, and then were translated to paint on canvas.
The colorful banners depict at first the immediate feelings of the children after Emanuel. And then, on the other side of a column, there are “peace banners.” “We didn’t want to work on these, two years later, from a violence point of view. We started talking about peace, and how we can find peace in our classrooms, homes, and cities,” says Gibbs. The banners are covered with flowers, water; one banner is simply one long “peace train.” There’s even an interactive set of train tracks on the floor, where children visiting the gallery can use boards to create “their peace thoughts.”
Visitors will be able to view the installation starting this Friday at 5 p.m. It will then be open (and free to the public) through August 27, Tuesdays through Fridays 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays, and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. There will be a number of special events during the five-week install, with themed discussion sessions, workshops, storytelling, drum circles, and more.
City Gallery’s newest exhibit is an open invitation: come participate. Gallimard reiterates that this is not a typical art gallery show. “The artwork, it’s not just objects to put in a corner,” she says. “If we bring kids here the conversation can be kicked back to the school. If we bring neighborhoods here, the conversation can be kicked back to the neighborhood association. We’re giving voice to people who are not heard. As people said in their interviews ‘We fear that we don’t count, and we want to count.'”
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