If you don’t know it already, the story of Porgy and Bess is as much a part of Charleston’s history as this city’s secession from the Union. A quick refresher: It’s fiction, not fact, and is based on the experiences of African Americans living in the Holy City in the 1920s. Porgy was written by Charleston author Dubose Heyward in 1925, and caught the attention of George Gershwin. Heyward and his wife Dorothy developed Porgy into a stage production that ran on Broadway in 1927, and several years later, work began on the opera. Heyward wrote the libretto, and Gershwin composed and orchestrated the music, with his brother Ira Gershwin contributing to the lyrics. Porgy and Bess debuted on Broadway on October 10, 1935 at the Alvin Theatre, and is now premiering at the 2016 Spoleto Festival.

“Beyond Catfish Row: The Art of Porgy and Bess” is the Gibbes Museum of Art’s accompaniment to the opera’s revival. In the show, Curator of Exhibitions Pam Wall writes that this exhibition examines interpretations of the opera created by visual artists through the years, along with the important role this artwork has played in shaping public perception. The exhibition includes works from the 1930s by George Biddle, Henry Botkin, and George Gershwin, who created paintings of life in Charleston and the surrounding area, in addition to modern interpretations from Kara Walker and Jonathan Green.

“We wanted to reopen the museum with this exhibition because it examines race relations through visual art. In the 1930s we had artists like Biddle and Botkin interpreting Gullah culture,” says Wall. “Now we have artists like Kara Walker and Jonathan Green who are acknowledging that record of history and taking a different approach.”

In the summer of 1930, Biddle came to Charleston for two months and his resulting drawings and paintings are expressive observations of life in the changing 20th century that were included in the Porgy and Bess libretto. Four years later, Gershwin invited his cousin Botkin to join him at Folly Beach while he composed the opera. Botkin’s “Porgy and Bess with George” is a watercolor study of a pair of Folly Beach cottages that suggests a place of leisure. There are two paintings by Gershwin himself on loan from the National Portrait Gallery in DC; a portrait of DuBose Heyward, and a self-portrait.

Artist Kara Walker says her first introduction to Porgy and Bess was through her mother who listened to the opera. “My memory is a little dark around the edges,” she writes in her artist statement, “but it seemed to me at the time there was something important about this music and Mom had a particularly private conversation happening with it. (…) When I hear the opening of ‘Summertime,’ no matter who is singing, ‘Daddy’s rich, and your mam is good looking’, I always see my mother nodding conspiratorially at the record, and hear her say ‘you know what THAT means’…” Walker’s series of 20 lithographs are an interpretation of the original libretto, and were purchased by the Gibbes to add to their permanent collection in 2015. Walker says the images of Porgy and Bess are archetypes, “American Negroes drawn up by white authors, and retooled by individual actors, amid charges of racism, and counter charges of high-art on stage and screen, in the face of social and political upheaval, over generations.” Because of the weight of these characters, Walker decided to create paper cut caricatures as an homage to the music. Printed by Arion Press in California, Walker’s lithographs will be on view in the exhibition.

Artist Jonathan Green is the visual designer for the 2016 stage production of Porgy and Bess. Green is celebrated for his use of vibrant colors and his depictions of the Gullah communities of Gardens Corner, S.C. where he grew up. The artist has dedicated his life to telling the story of the Gullah community through his joyful depictions of everyday life. Green’s painting “Harvest Gathering” was chosen as the official 2016 Spoleto Festival poster and his West African design motifs seen in the final act of the Festival’s Porgy and Bess are featured on homes throughout the city that have been chosen for their significance in African-American history in Spoleto’s “Porgy Houses.”

“Part of our intention with the museum’s special exhibitions is to use our historical collections to tell stories that are relevant today,” Wall says. “Connecting that history with our current lives makes it more meaningful.”

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