Artists redefine “Proper” at the Gibbes

'Sexually Ambiguous' Susan Harbage Page, Juan Logan

'Sexually Ambiguous' Susan Harbage Page, 2009

The new show at the Gibbes Museum reminds me of the great Aretha Franklin song, RESPECT. In it she sings about coming home and getting her propers, her r-e-s-p-e-c-t. Truth is, the word in the song is profits, now that I look it up, but that works, too. Profits and propers are both due. The show is called Prop Master and is the work of the Executive Director, Angela Mack, in collaboration with artists Susan Harbage Page, and her husband, Juan Logan, who both teach at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Juan Logan is black, Susan Page is white. Props in this case are many things, but for this show, Angela Mack gave the artists free rein to use any of the art in the museum, as props. Prop Master is about race, class, gender and sexual identity in the South, and particularly, at the Gibbes Museum in Charleston, which for the last 100 years, included only 40 works by Black Americans in its collection of 10,000. pieces. “Props” support us, and here we question all that.

This is a powerful and brave installation. There are many conversations going on at once, and it bravely asks us, the viewer, questions. Mack said, “All museums share a fundamental obligation to provide context and challenge perceptions.” This one does that. Often when we walk into something daring, what we feel is a mirror of ourselves and our own ideas. So, seeing the truth may be unsettling. This show will no doubt bring out some dragon fire from within us, but that is a good thing. It is a conversation that, in the South, in Charleston, needs to become commonplace and everyday, not rare.

African American influence in the American South affected everything, from the foods we consider regional to the way we speak. Logan and Page create this presence, and symbolize it the way the South has traditionally treated this subject, by using wallpaper imagery and it covers all the walls in this large gallery space: tiny white oval faces spray painted everywhere. They use the museum’s portraits of old Charleston families and hang them side by side with new photographs of Black residents who continue to carry on the same last name, in a portion of the show called “Famous Last Names.” It includes neatly folded Ku Klux Klan robes, wrapped and tied in pretty little bundles, with ribbons, to allude to the South’s infamous past and suggests that we still hold old attitudes, though politely. One of my favorite details is a narrow strip of a repeated photograph. It is an image of a tea party from the fifties. A proper white woman serves a man a cookie on a silver tray. It wraps the room.

This show is terrific, and will be up through Spoleto, Charleston’s Arts Festival that runs from May 22 to June 7. Angela Mack is to be commended for insisting that this conversation be a loud one. It is thrilling to be in a city that is facing her dragon, and using artists to help us see ourselves. Tell everyone you know; bring everyone you know. For me, I’ll be humming Aretha’s classic song this week and thinking in fresher ways about what she means when she sings that word.

I was called to be an artist. And as an old old midwife said to me "If the Lord wants you to do something, you won't have no good luck' til you do." So, here I am, sharing what I love, longing to illuminate the work of art, which is everywhere.

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Posted in art, Arts & Culture, Charleston South Carolina, creativity, Gullah, music, South Carolina History
3 comments on “Artists redefine “Proper” at the Gibbes
  1. I love this sentence: “It includes neatly folded Ku Klux Klan robes, wrapped and tied in pretty little bundles, with ribbons, to allude to the South’s infamous past and suggests that we still hold old attitudes, though politely. ”

    very well put. makes me want to go out and see it!

  2. Ken Hawkins says:

    Hi there. Just wanted to let you know we stumbled on your blog and think it’s great. — We linked to this post from our little brief about the exhibit, and we’ll likely keep plugging things.

    We’d have e-mailed, but couldn’t find an address on the site.

    • Ken, thanks so much! I am thrilled you found me and thanks for including a quote and the link to my blog in your piece about the exhibit, today! Yay. (It really is an amazing installation; I would like to go back again – it is almost too much to get at one take!)
      Kindest Regards,

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What’s this?

Welcome to my blog about the Lowcountry of South Carolina, a place proud with beauty, history and art. Sometimes we feel a call, to be, to go, to do. I was called to be an artist, and as an old midwife from Alabama said, “If the good Lord wants you to do something, you won’t have no good luck until you do it.”

So here I am writing about what I know, about the 'under glimmer' as the poet Basho, says, the way I have learned to see, to notice. I am inspired by, and talking about the history and art and culture of this place that has called me to herself. By the ancestors.

My background includes a degree in fine arts from a small private college in Florida, and before that, four years of all girls' boarding school in Asheville. I worked as a professional photographer, helped my children grow up, and now and I love seasoned things, good food, better conversation, beauty, my beloved and beautiful Italian Greyhound, Beau. Moved by the sacred places and stories of this beautiful historic land called the Lowcountry, I am here in spirit and I hope to infect you with my love of this place.

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