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Hats off to Gantt Center's church lady photography series, more 

Three unexpected exhibits put Southern and Gullah cultures in the spotlight

The folks over at the Gantt Center of African-American Art + Culture may have outdone themselves this time. In a follow-up to Tavis Smiley's touring America I AM: The African American Imprint, a long-stay exhibit that ran from June 30, 2012, through March 3, 2013, they're now showcasing three compelling exhibits in a series that celebrates Southern culture. Comprised of works by photographers Julie Moos and David Herman Jr. and an extensive collection of artwork by painter Jonathan Green, the grouping, which runs through June 15, is all that and then some — without the shackles. Instead, we see artwork that's reflective of the beauties that lie within human relationships, Gullah culture and a lifetime of inspiration from patches of folks across the South.

"Mrs. Taylor and Mrs. Poole" by Julie Moos
  • "Mrs. Taylor and Mrs. Poole" by Julie Moos

Julie Moos
Known for pairing her subjects to display the complexities of human relationships, Canadian photographer Julie Moos shifts her lens to an exquisitely clad bunch of churchgoing Baptists, dubbed "hat ladies," for I Got Freedom Up Over My Head, an exhibit of life-size portraits.

Moos showcased her Friends and Foes exhibit — pairing students from Birmingham, Ala.'s private Altamont School with classmates who were either friends or enemies — at the Mint Museum on Randolph Road back in 2003.

The photographs for I Got Freedom Up Over My Head, taken from the Bank of America Collection, were shot at New Pilgrim Baptist Church in Birmingham too, where the "hat ladies," a group of older women who attend the church, congregate to serve the community.

Moos, a former resident of Birmingham, took on the project after being approached by a councilman and friend, Elias Hendricks, also a member of the church. "We were food shopping and squeezing tomatoes," says Moos about the initial conception for the project. "His mother was a hat lady and he wanted to immortalize them. He wanted the images to celebrate a kind of dying breed, because the younger women aren't doing that as much and that generation is aging, so he wanted to capture that before they disappear."

Initially, Moos worried about doing the project, because of her skin color. Being a white woman, with so many renowned African-American photographers nearby, she felt unsuited to the project. But Hendricks' idea of "building bridges, not tearing them apart" convinced Moos to venture into uncharted turf with her camera. The resulting exhibit debuted in 2002 at the Birmingham Museum of Art.

The photos, all cropped from the waist up, have been praised for capturing details. You'll notice freckles, wrinkles and blemishes on the subjects' aging skin, but more compelling are the dressy accessories and attire that make up their Sunday best — regal hats with feathers, lace and sequins being the main focal point.

The images are titled simply as the names of the subjects. "Mrs. Taylor and Mrs. Poole" both wear flashy red dresses and hats, the more striking of which is adorned with feathers while the other is of straw. Wardrobe similarities, also noticeable on "Mrs. Carr and Mrs. Thorton," who both wear leopard and zebra prints, can leave viewers questioning the pairing choices.

But Moos, who prefers to work alone and out of a traveling studio, assures us that she had no part in the wardrobe of her subjects and who they paired themselves with. "I could never play that hand of color. I would need a magazine editor or stylist."

Shooting in a hallway of the church allowed the women to approach her at will and alongside whoever they wanted to be photographed with. One subject was photographed alone, at her own request.

For the photo shoot, Moos used a large-format camera and simple lighting. Her only manipulation was to encourage subtle looks, as opposed to candid reactions, from her subjects.

"I try to — I don't know exactly why — erase or minimize personalities," she says. "I just wanted them to be sort of as generic as possible, almost like passport images." She references the technique of German photographer Thomas Ruff, who also tries to erase as much frill and excess emotion, as being similar to her own. "I think it leaves you feeling comfortable making connections or making your own stories about them. The spirit can come forward more when there's less façade. I try to engage and let down my guard and hopefully we find some trust between each other."

"Burton's Lady" by Jonathan Green
  • "Burton's Lady" by Jonathan Green

Jonathan Green
Jonathan Green paints what he knows. Much of his work is reflective of simple past times, Southern culture and sweeping landscapes as seen through the eyes of an insider to the Gullah community — a small and fascinating African-American ethnic group from the low country and sea islands along the eastern coastline of South Carolina and Georgia.

Despite having moved around for military service and school — he graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago — he's kept the culture close to his heart, eventually moving back to S.C. to be closer to his roots. The largest of the three new exhibits at the Gantt Center, Green's A Spiritual Journey of Life displays more than 35 of his works, spanning from the beginning stages of his life as an artist to the present day.

His artwork is vibrant, detailing day-to-day scenes, life events and rituals fluid within the Southern community where he grew up. Titles are explanatory: "Father and Son," "Daughters of the South," "Gladiolus Harvest," "The Congregation," "Baptism of Susie May," "The Proposal," "The Passing of Eloise" — to name several in the collection.

Together, they display the artist's personal experiences in the form of visual storytelling. "If that's not done, if it's not recorded, then there are big gaps missing in our society and culture," says Green.

In his quest to become an artist, he immersed himself in art history, traveling to Switzerland to further research the artists he fancied. His trips across the globe proved successful, as speaking with some of the artists helped him to develop his own stylistic and thematic direction.

"I started my career with the Gullah series, because I went to Switzerland and I met many artists and when I would always ask them, 'What makes you do art?' they all said, simply, 'Because we do what we know.'"

Green experimented with aspects of abstractions and surrealism before settling into his best-known approach to painting, termed "narrative realism."

One of the paintings in the exhibit, "Burton's Lady," comes from a series that Green completed that focuses on quilts. "I wanted to give homage to those lone women that, at a very specific time, engaged in the chore for the purpose of their loved ones and family."

Green is currently working on a series about rice and hopes to help educate folks about the rice economy. "It was the reason why West Africans were enslaved and brought here," Green says. "They brought them as contractors and then they turned around and brought them as slaves because of the rice fields."

The rice series will be the topic of a symposium in Charleston, S.C., that kicks off the weekend of Sept. 17. "I just feel it's one of the greatest motivational, inspirational concepts today that any person of color should be jumping all over. Because what rice says is [to] look at us, from a cultural perspective and what we brought to this continent: the economy of rice, a 250-year economy that built the Southeast. Most African-Americans, when they look into the 1700s, 1800s, they just see slavery. I'm using rice as an acronym for race, ingenuity, injustice, culture and economy."

"Ancestral Chullin" by David Herman Jr.
  • "Ancestral Chullin" by David Herman Jr.

David Herman Jr.
Photographer David Herman Jr. briefly touches on rice in his exhibit, Etched in the Eyes. Comprised primarily of black and white photographs of the Gullah community, the exhibit also features mixed media and sculptures. Among these is "Diaspora," a newer piece that Herman based around the African diaspora. The sculpture, a tribal African figure adorned with shells, beads and a mirror, has a carved out stomach with rice placed inside, representing the influence of the crop on African people worldwide.

Larger, though, are the many photographs that line the walls and document the still-thriving community along the coast. Herman, who now resides in Dallas as cofounder and director of Preservation Link — an organization providing photography and visual literacy programs — travels frequently to his hometown in Georgetown, S.C.

Most of the images were taken on excursions home, from 1999-2006, though Herman has been taking photos of the setting since childhood — one of these early shots is on display in the exhibit. Photographs like "Welcome," "Generational" and "Sweetgrass" celebrate the Gullah tradition of basket-making, while others document younger and older generations and, in some cases, the artist's family members.

But while the works serve as a means of celebrating the Gullah culture, they also raise awareness of the community's continuous fight for land retention, an issue crucial to survival. Adding a compelling element to the exhibit's overall feel is a small-scale bottle tree, complete with miniature alcohol bottles. This newer piece was inspired by bottle trees that originated in Africa's Congo region and have become a staple of Southern culture, where they are believed to ward off evil spirits.

"Normally, when I have a show that pertains to Gullah-Geechee, I paint one of the walls an indigo or dark blue," notes Herman. "The significance in that is that culturally, it's a color that wards off evil spirits. So as an artist, I elected to use the same concept, but to do something different."

All three exhibits continue through June 15. Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, 551 S. Tryon St. 704-374-1565. www.ganttcenter.com.

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