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Landscape of Slavery: The Plantation in American Art

May 9 - August 3, 2008


The Gibbes Museum of Art has organized a groundbreaking exhibition entitled Landscape of Slavery: The Plantation in American Art to offer a comprehensive, interdisciplinary examination of plantation images in the American South from the eighteenth century to the present. 

Curated by Angela D. Mack, the museum's Executive Director, the exhibition features over 100 paintings, works on paper, photographs, mixed media and installation works.  Through the eyes of a range of artists such as Eastman Johnson, Winslow Homer, William Aiken Walker, Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, John Biggers, Edwin Harleston, Carrie Mae Weems and Kara Walker, Landscape of Slavery examines depictions of plantations, plantation views and related slave imagery in the context of the history of landscape painting in America. "More than a history of the visual imagery related to the plantation, the show invites one to consider the impact that this imagery has had on race relations for three centuries," says Mack. (right: Alice Ravenel Huger Smith (1876 -1958), Mending A Break in a Rice Field, from the series, A Carolina Rice Plantation of the Fifties, ca. 1935, Watercolor on paper, 17.40 x 21.93 inches. Gibbes Museum of Art)

A genre predominantly tied to the Southern region of the United States, the plantation view has traditionally received marginal attention in the study of American landscape art.  Previous work on the plantation subject has emphasized the debt the genre owes to 18th century British aesthetic theories and styles.  In recent years, however, art historians have worked to identify general shifts in plantation iconography that reflect specific historical events. Meanwhile, plantation views have attracted the attention of social historians who have identified the genre as a rich source for exploring issues of wealth, power, race, memory and nostalgia.  Landscape of Slavery seeks to bring these current discussions on the topic together for the public's consideration.

Landscape of Slavery: The Plantation in American Art is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.  Sponsors of the Gibbes exhibition include Gibbes, etc., Charleston Renaissance Gallery, The Henry and Sylvia Yaschik Foundation, The Humanities Council SC, Dr. and Mrs. George W. Williams, Geiss & Sons Jewelers, Amelia T. Handegan Interior Design,  Hulsey Law Group, Piggly Wiggly and media sponsor Charleston Magazine.



University of Virginia Art Museum in Charlottesville, VA January 25 - April 20, 2008
Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, SC May 9 - August 3, 2008
Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, GA August 23 - October 19, 2008


Wall texts from the exhibition 

The plantation is a by-product of European colonization and a distinctive New World institution. Initially used to refer to the act of planting the usage of the word plantation quickly evolved to identify a large land holding in tropical or semitropical regions.  The link to enslaved Africans and African Americans and to specific labor-intensive crops such as rice, indigo, tobacco, cotton, sugar and coffee occurred swiftly and remained unshakeable even after emancipation efforts took hold across the Americas.   
Art has played a significant role in picturing the plantation and in defining the inextricable bonds between slave, landowner and landscape.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the art of the American South. The works in this exhibition, while demonstrating astonishing stylistic variety, are unified thematically. What emerges is a pictorial legacy that has tackled the intertwining of the land and the people that comprised the plantation south. These images provide a rich source for exploring themes of wealth, power, race, resistance, nostalgia and conflict. Landscape of Slavery examines southern plantation and related slave imagery in an effort to understand more fully its role in the history of American art from the eighteenth century to the present and to understand the historical legacy of plantation slavery.
The depiction of the plantation and slavery has often been tightly bound up with contemporary politics. Both artists and audiences have used these images of the American South to further political agendas.  The objects in this section demonstrate ways that images helped shape contemporary political debate. For example, in the antebellum period, views of famous plantations such as Mount Vernon were sometimes used to bolster proslavery arguments by picturing a pastoral ideal and representing slavery as a benevolent system. Conversely, other artists chose to represent the institution's physical residue.
Since the Civil War, artists have often used plantation imagery to show the unbroken chain that links slavery and sharecropping to segregation, the Ku Klux Klan and lynching.  Ultimately the politics of plantation imagery rest with what is made visible and what is made invisible, what is accentuated and what is obscured.        
Plantation imagery of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries most often testified to the wealth and power of the slaveowners. While this European derived pastoral ideal is the image most often associated with the plantation period, an African aesthetic was a vital contributor to the visual culture of the plantation. Enslaved Africans and African Americans learned through ancestral memory and artistic innovation to identify their own spaces, away from the oversight of their masters. Some were in objects often considered utilitarian such as baskets, pottery, and quilts. Others were in their environments such as their homes, gardens, and gravesites.
Contemporary African American artists confront their culture and history, informed through the legacies of ancestral memory.  As part of their work many contemporary African American artists incorporate the past through utilizing craft traditions commonly associated with enslaved artisans -- such as pottery, quilts, and baskets -- or vernacular places -- such as slave cabins or grave sites -- into their own work. Together these artists -- African and African American, enslaved and free, from the eighteenth to the twenty-first centuries -- present powerful images of a plantation experience different from painted landscapes produced for plantation owners.
Even before the economic and physical ruin brought on by the Civil War, southern plantations were viewed through a veil of nostalgia -- a loss and longing for an imagined past.  Images of Mount Vernon for example, particularly after Washington's death in 1799, often focused on the mansion house as the physical embodiment of the new republic and its heroic leader.    
After Reconstruction, images of the plantation transformed rapidly to match the romantic vision that southerners proclaimed to a national audience.  Mostly for northern consumption, these views bore little resemblance to the harsh racial realities of life across the region during the tumultuous decades of the early twentieth century.  Two types of images dominated the post-war nostalgic views. The first depicted the pre-war plantation as a site of physical grandeur and racial harmony, such as in the representations of Tara and Twelve Oaks in Gone with the Wind. The second portrayed the ruins of a once great plantation house as a way of commenting on the physical and economic toll of the Civil War and serving as a reminder of its lingering scars.
Through the centuries plantation-related images have encompassed contradictory visions and competing views.  For instance, most antebellum plantation paintings exclude the enslaved workers whose labor created the wealth and shaped the land.  In the tradition of the British estate view, these images omitted the brutal labor necessary for carving out a successful agricultural enterprise.  Instead it is the planter's house often shown in its park-like setting viewed from a great distance that serves as a symbol of the planter's wealth and social standing.
After the Civil War the emancipated slave is celebrated for the first time in art; first by white artists and later by African American artists who begin to reinscribe what was previously omitted.  Through their eyes the house portrait gives way to an image that emphasizes the physical burden of agricultural labor. In the twentieth century, many African American artists continued to draw upon plantation imagery in order to depict black resistance to slavery and to make a statement about the continuing impact of the historical legacy of slavery. 


(above: Stephen Marc (American, b. 1954), Untitled from the Passage on the Underground Railroad Series, 2002, Archival pigment inkjet print, 18 x 52 inches. Courtesy of the artist)

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