Monday, July 6, 2009


Women in headties interacted with their admirers amid the rocks and the trees during SL resident Indea Vaher's recent exhibition opening at the Bluff Center for the Arts. The women on canvas are the fictionalized residents of "St. Isabella Island"--also fictional, but based on the very real Sea Islands off the South Carolina/Georgia shores.

The Sea Islands, along with some of the coastal lands, are home to the Gullah, an African-American group whose relative isolation allowed greater retention of customs, names, linguistic habits and other Africanisms. Many of their ancestors came from the same part of West Africa, the so-called "Grain Coast" of southern Sierra Leone and parts of Liberia and Guinea. This was one of the few regions where "divide and conquer" was abandoned; plantation owner policy was usually to seek Africans of diverse origins to prevent communication.

The Gullah area, however, was rice-growing country, and the rice-growing was not a European crop--at least not in the area the settlers were from. The Grain Coast, however, was home to many rice farmers from multiple ethnic groups: Mende, Temne, Bullom, Kissi, Vai, and others. So the planters made an exception--it was far more useful to have farmers who knew rice well, than it was to try and train people in techniques they were initially none to familiar with themselves.

While they didn't all share a common language, they had common cultural institutions--the Poro initiation camp for boys, and the Sande/Bundu initiation camp for girls. These were schools, training grounds in adulthood, professions, medicines, educated use of proverbs and more; they began with circumcision/excision for all initiates, and membership was a social requirement. Sande/Bundu is the only African masquerade that women dance, attired in black raffia and a blackened wooden mask, representing the society's tutelary deity and acting as the embodiment of the ideal woman.

While Christianity, many elements of Western dress, and other adaptations affected the Gullah once they came to the United States, their distinctiveness remains.

As Indea shows on her sim, the women weave sweetgrass baskets for themselves and for sale on roadside stands and Charleston market. Adaptations to outsiders have been around a long time--handled baskets were necessary for those who didn't know how to balance loads on their head, a work habit African and Gullah women long shared.

The islanders have long fascinated visitors; the 1974 movie Conrack (and Pat Conroy's novel before it) was set in Gullah territory, as was Julie Dash's 1991 Daughters of the Dust.

A very fascinating documentary, The Language You Cry In (1998), traces a Gullah song lyric collected in the 1920s by Lorenzo Turner, an African American linguist. Turner found an African exchange student who identified it as Mende, from Sierra Leone. In the 1980s, a trio of Americans--a linguist, an ethnomusicologist and an anthropologist--tracked the song on two continents. They found the lyrics were a mourning song, and discovered its home was a specific Sierra Leonean village. Happily, the Gullah singer's daughter was still alive and remembered the song. Despite delays because of the Sierra Leonean civil war, a 1997 homecoming took place: the daughter, along with her own grown children, traveled to Sierra Leone and were welcomed, the song reuniting them with what is likely their ancestral village. This film is terrifically moving; my students and I never watch it without crying. Many public libraries own copies of the video. Try and watch this academic detective story that proves the worth of some of pursuits--they may seem dry and dusty, but they are far from it.

Gullah customs can be visibly different from those of neighboring areas, and naturally prove a magnet to visual artists.. Some, such as Eldzier Corter, were from other parts of the country, but were as drawn to the Sea Isle folk as they were to Haiti. Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, the Gullah have been chronicled by painters such as Albert Hebby Hunter and locals Sam Doyle and Jonathan Green (one of the most successful of Gullah chroniclers). Photographer Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe chronicled Daufuskie island when she accompanied her late husband Arthur Ashe on a trip to neighboring Hilton Head, one of the isles first invaded by developers.

Indea Vaher's real-life counterpart was drawn to the area as well, to its tenacious relationship to the past, its great natural beauty, and its powerful history. She is drawn by many of the same things that attract conceptual photographer Carrie Mae Weems. While their media and styles are far apart, they

see the underlying strengths, struggles and stories in AfriAmericana--the folk beneath the folklore.

Indea, a Creole whose personal roots are in Louisiana, lives in South Carolina and feels a kinship with her Gullah neighbors. She admires their dignity, their adherance to a different lifestyle, and the culture they built with European supplies on an African foundation. Her fictional women mirror their real sisters. Vaher notes in her artist's statement that "Customs preserved from the past are prevalent as the natives of St. Isabella carry on life as if time has stood still. In this beautiful island paradise the FREE strong and independent women of color practice midwifery, and medicine. They sew sweetgrass baskets and create beautiful quilts. They seed and harvest next to the men in their world, and act as both priestess and teacher."

Indea describes herself as self-taught, but her mastery of color, sophisticated composition and mood are sure. Her skills have been recognized through numerous honors and awards, as well as a considerable number of national exhibitions. She noted that many artists who work in the Gullah region focus on similar subject matter and sell notecards as well as paintings, but her work has a recognizable style that distinguishes it easily.

Describing her interest in early African American history as an obsession, Indea has recreated the Metoyer Plantation of her Louisiana youth (home of the fascinating Marie Coin-Coin, 18th century daughter of Ghana's Akan, who left a plantation to her children to Frenchman Louis Metoyer) in Sunrise Mansion and related outbuildings. In June, her desire to participate in a world day of remembrance for those who traveled the Middle Passage let to her creation of Safe Haven Landing, reminiscent of South Carolina's Ibo Landing--where incoming captives chose to wade back into the sea and drown, in hope of reincarnation back home. The subject itself is still too horrific for her to address through painting; rather, she draws on the strengths of those survivors who together built a new culture and walked deftly in beauty.

Vaher's Sunrise Mansion and her Vaher Visions host exhibits by herself and other artists, and her SL exhibition schedule is vibrant. Besides the bucolic Bluff Center's outdoor space, she will soon show "Jumbalaya" at West of Ireland Art Centre, with an opening reception July 11 from 1-3 pm SLT at

The Bluff Center exhibition runs through July 31st at

No comments:

Post a Comment