Works by four contemporary Savannah artists are on display as part of the “Journey from Africa to Gullah” exhibition marking the bicentennial of the end of the transatlantic slave trade. The exhibit is at South Carolina State University’s I.P. Stanback Museum and Planetarium in Orangeburg, S.C., through Jan. 12.
Allen Fireall’s painting titled The Gullah Bride,” Richard Law’s “Diggen’ Dem Aysta,” Judy Mooney’s “Gullah Man” sculpture, and three paintings by Luther E. Vann are included in the exhibit. Their work joined that of some of Gullah culture’s most accomplished modern artists, including Diane Britton Dunham, Floyd Gordon, Jonathan Green, Hank Herring, Phillip Simmons, Jery B. Taylor, and numerous others.
In addition, Savannah author Sallie Ann Robinson, whose cookbook Cooking the Gullah Way has been winning acclaim, was also on hand to share a taste of her culinary expertise.
For painter Allen Fireall, who describes himself as an “artist historian,” the exhibit represents both a personal and a cultural triumph. The same painting by Fireall included in the exhibition was also chosen for use as a prop in the movie Nights in Rodanthe. The image is one of a white and blue-gowned bride sitting in a rowboat while Daufuskie Island floats serenely in the background.
“I was raised by grandparents who were Gullah,” said Fireall, “and as a child I used to visit cousins in South Carolina who spoke the Gullah dialect. At that time I laughed at the way they spoke, but once I became an adult I realized the importance of preserving the language and the entire culture.”
The sound of jazz saxophones merged with African conga drums reverberated throughout the I.P. Stanback Museum and Planetarium as an estimated 1,000 guests filled the facility during the exhibition opening and reception. To mark the solemnity of the occasion, the podium in front of entrance to the exhibition room was covered with ceremonial cloth from Zaire.
“The cloth is really old and kind of fragile,” said Ellen Zisholtz, director of Stanback. “We were almost afraid to use it.”
Zisholtz, whose resume includes cultural work in Savannah and Beaufort, said her inspiration for the exhibit came in 1990 while watching a production of Conrack, the stage musical based on Pat Conroy’s novel, The Water is Wide.
“I had never been to South Carolina and this was my first exposure to the Gullah culture, although I did not have a name for it then,” she noted. “Several years later, I was invited to go on the first ferry to Daufuskie Island. As I explored Daufuskie, I suddenly realized that I was there––the Gullah island where Conroy taught.”
Because I.P. Stanback is both a museum and a planetarium, when visitors weren’t enjoying the art or steaming plates of Gullah delicacies, they could stare up at a star-covered ceiling while planetarium manager Elizabeth Mayo discussed “Decoding the Stars: Negro Spirituals and the Underground Railroad.”