Opening Jan. 26 at Telfair's Jepson Center are two exhibitions by two contemporary African-American artists from two different generations with one common theme: "What does it mean to be black in America?"
African-American culture is American culture and African-American history is American history. But even at our advanced stage of human existence in the digitized and roboticized 21st century, we're still trying to explain to ourselves what exactly our humanness means and refine ourselves as a people who share a history with many separate threads. Often art can help unravel the tangle we find ourselves in, and that's exactly what Carrie Mae Weems and Paul Stephen Benjamin are doing with their respective work.
Weems' "Sea Islands Series, 1991-1992" and Benjamin's "Reinterpreting the Sound of Blackness" are in many ways two visual stories about the same sprawling subject. Weems uses black and white photography, folkloric texts and ceramic plates to explore the culture of the Gullah-Geechee people along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia, a community that's been referred to as "the most African of American cultures" and has its beginnings at our very beginning as a nation.
Benjamin uses stacks of video monitors, audio clips, textiles and other objects to conceptualize "the sound of black" by re-appropriating elements of pop culture songs, performances and speeches by famous personalities like Shirley Chisholm, Beyonce, LeBron James, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone and Lil Wayne.
Taken together, the two exhibitions - which lie at distinctly separate points along the same continuum - should provoke not only a deeper contemplation of the African-American experience, but also hopefully illuminate previously unseen connections within the same meta-narrative.
"It's a poetic way to look at these very complicated issues in American history, particularly race, politics and cultural norms," explains Rachel Reese, Telfair's associate curator of modern and contemporary art.
"Weems' 'Sea Islands Series' mixes the historical significance of the Gullah-Geechee people with the engagement of cultural memory. In doing so, she is connecting the long lineage of West African roots, slavery and post-Civil War life of the Gullah people on these Sea Islands with a celebration of the vibrancy of culture they have brought not only to the South, but to the history of America.
"By creating memories, Weems asks us to actively participate in the idea that these are our memories as well - a cultural memory that is vital to American society today."
Benjamin - who was recently named an "artist to watch" by the New York Times - bookends the theme with his modern meditation on what being black looks and sounds like, navigating the tricky terrain with elements that Reese refers to as "a very subtle, poetic way to explore difficult ideas."
Though the methods of artistic investigation are very different, both exhibitions should prove to be a cohesive and moving experience. It's particularly noteworthy that this is the first time Weems' "Sea Islands Series" has been shown in the region it was created, and Benjamin's exhibition will be the largest solo presentation of his work to date, with a number of never-before-seen pieces.
Weems herself explains that making the "Sea Islands Series" was part of a larger unearthing of a previously hidden history.
"There's this dynamic culture that was hidden and suppressed, but it meant something," says Weems. "And part of the discrediting of a people is that you discredit the history. And I think that's a part of what's happened in the south and certainly in the Sea Islands."
For a more in-depth discussion with Weems about her "Sea Islands Series," check out the Jan. 21 SavArtScene column at SavannahNow.com. Look out for next week's Do for a one-on-one discussion with Benjamin about "Reinterpreting the Sound of Blackness."
IF YOU GO
What: Carrie Mae Weems, "Sea Islands Series, 1991-1992" and Paul Stephen Benjamin, "Reinterpreting the Sound of Blackness"
When: Jan. 26-May 6; 6 p.m. Feb. 1, Weems opening night lecture and reception; 6 p.m. Feb. 8, Benjamin lecture
Where: Jepson Center, 207 W. York St.
Cost: Weems lecture free for members and $8 for nonmembers; Benjamin lecture free