Addressing the impressive crowd at the opening reception for the Beach Institute’s new exhibit “Africa and Its Gullah Geechee Connections,” historian and collector Willis Hakim Jones told the story of a mysterious “face jug” made by an enslaved craftsman in South Carolina.
The face jug’s first documented owner, who believed that the item was cursed, sold it for $100 shortly before her death. The rare artifact became part of the collection of the late Paul Blatner and then the Acacia Collection of the late Carroll Greene. The jug sold for $72,000 at a 2017 auction.Get Savannah arts and culture news delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our morning, afternoon and Dine newsletters
Jones told other stories about finding, collecting and ultimately sharing artifacts that could easily have been lost forever.
“Africa and Its Gullah Geechee Connections” showcases artifacts, documents and memorabilia that Jones has collected over the decades. The exhibition, which also includes pieces by artists Jerydine Bennet Taylor and Aleathia Chisolm, provides myriad glimpses deep into history and into Gullah Geechee traditions, like quilting and basket weaving, that continue today.
I was especially struck by some of the documents in the exhibition. An 1854 digest of Savannah ordinances uses laborious bureaucratize to codify oppression of both enslaved persons and free blacks.
Three pages of a beautiful Arabic manuscript and a wooden writing board from the west coast of Africa are exhibited near a panel that details the life of Omar Ibn Said, a Muslim slave who later converted to Christianity, at least nominally. Said’s autobiography is the basis for a new opera by MacArthur Fellow Rhiannon Giddens that will debut at next year’s Spoleto Festival in Charleston.
The exhibition even includes Fanny Kemble’s 1863 book “Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation,” a seminal text of the abolitionist movement. The British actress was married to American slaveholder Pierce Mease Butler but eventually moved back to England with her daughters.
I am surely making the exhibit sound far too bookish, so rest assured that visitors can also immerse themselves in the beauty and physical details of a variety of items made for everyday use.
Of course, while you’re visiting the exhibit, you can also see some of the Beach Institute’s permanent displays, including the African American art on the ground floor and the truly extraordinary carvings of Ulysses Davis on the main floor.
“Africa and Its Gullah Geechee Connections” continues through January 2020. The Beach Institute African-American Cultural Center at 502 E. Harris St. is open from noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
Bill Dawers writes City Talk in Savannah Morning News and blogs at hissing lawns (www.hissinglawns.com) and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.