Exhibit explores plantation paintings

Picture a plantation. Would a scene from Gone with the Wind come to mind? Might there be a tree-lined lane leading to a big house with tall columns surrounded by extensive fields of cotton, or maybe tobacco or rice?


To some, the plantation epitomizes the historic beauty of a verdant Southern landscape, or represents a nostalgic vision of gracious living. To others, the image evoked is that of slavery and enforced labor, of life tied to and controlled by that big house, but distanced from it.

An exhibit opening Saturday at the Morris Museum of Art offers a rare opportunity to examine that dichotomy through art. Landscape of Slavery: The Plantation in American Art was organized by the Gibbes Museum in Charleston, S.C., and opened at the University of Virginia Art Museum in Charlottesville before traveling on to Charleston and now Augusta.

Unlike some exhibitions, this one is not so much about the technical skill of the artists or the aesthetic quality of the images. Its focus extends beyond those aspects to explore the ways such images have shaped our perceptions about our history, ourselves and each other.

Included are works by well-known artists such as Eastman Johnson, William Aiken Walker, Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, Thomas Hart Benton, Benny Andrews, Jonathan Green and Carrie Mae Weems. There are paintings, drawings, photographs, mixed media and installation works. Historical paintings that draw heavily on European landscape traditions are shown along with examples of plantation-related imagery.

The celebrated work of enslaved potter Dave of the Edgefield district and other slave-made objects that go beyond the utilitarian, incorporating elements of African heritage and ritual are also included. Works by contemporary artists add diverse responses to images from the past.

In recent years, archaeological discoveries have brought renewed interest in the architecture, culture and economy of plantation life. With this exhibit and the accompanying book, which has essays contributed by half a dozen scholars, the plantation image has been given a comprehensive study from both art historical and socioeconomic perspectives.

Angela Mack, executive director of Charleston's Gibbes Museum, said that because there are major plantation images in that museum's collection, "We were inspired to lead an effort to unravel the realities and fictions that surround the subject matter."

As the first museum in the country to focus on the art of the South, the Morris Museum also has a number of plantation-related images in its collection. Director Kevin Grogan said he and his staff were pleased to have the opportunity to work with the Gibbes on a project of such quality and scope.

"One of the hallmarks of a good museum is an interest in establishing and sustaining a public dialogue about matters of importance," he said.

Related programs scheduled at the Morris include High Art and Low Country, a "friend-raiser" with Gullah artist Jonathan Green on Sept. 5, a day-long symposium on Sept. 6, and sessions on Edgefield pottery and sweetgrass baskets. Details are available at www.themorris.org.