Jamele Wright Sr.’s artwork draws on the Black American experience, creating a conversation about history, spirituality and material possessions between Africa and the American South.
His spiritually charged exhibition, the land knows the truth…, is on display at the Gibbes Museum of Art through Dec. 5.
The abstract landscapes in this exhibit focus on the region’s beauty, interwoven with its deeply complex history. Wright said he approached his artmaking in Charleston as a historian observing Charleston’s landscape, energy and people and reporting his findings through his artwork. The artist was particularly concerned with capturing the “emotional echoes of the lives who have inhabited this region,” he said.
Wright makes an interesting stylistic choice by presenting landscapes in a portrait orientation. Process is important to the context of these works. Wright starts with canvas and cotton which are soaked in indigo and then dunked in the ocean before drying in the sun on the beach at Sullivan’s Island. The exhibition at the Gibbes includes a bowl of indigo-dyed sand, a remnant of Wright’s creative process.
Wright, who grew up in Ohio, is now based in Atlanta. He participated in the Gibbes’ Visiting Artist program this May and June. It was during that residency that Wright created his new body of work included in the land knows the truth….
“When I came to Charleston, I was charged by the community,” he said. “This is a very interesting place, energetically. Charleston is rich with a lot of information.”
Wright was welcomed by the community with an opening reception at the College of Charleston’s Avery Research Center, where he met executive director, Dr. Tamara Butler.
“Dr. Butler gave me ideas of what to look for here. She kept mentioning the sound of Charleston,” he continued. “She said Charleston doesn’t sound like any other place. At first I didn’t understand that, but after spending time here, I learned, the sound of Charleston is really a certain type of silence,” Wright said.
“Silence can be beautiful, and can also be violent. And that’s what I heard in Charleston.”
Wright felt a “divine pull” towards Sullivan’s Island, he said, as this was the arrival point for tens of thousands of enslaved Africans.
The landscapes in his work represent those first Africans that were brought to the area and their descendants. In his artist statement, Wright wonders, “What gave those people hope? What kept them going?”
“On that beach, I felt like I could feel those people coming to shore,” he said. “I wanted to open myself up to receive that energy and relay it through the surface of a painting.”
During his residency at the Gibbes, Wright approached creating a new body of work with intention and care.
“I came in as an outsider, trying really hard not to exploit or appropriate. I think when you live somewhere, you can become numb to the beauty and the pain,” Wright said.
Wright’s decision to dye his canvases with indigo, once a “cash crop” in South Carolina, is an important artistic choice.
“Indigo artist Arianne King Comer came to me on the first day of my residency. She was like my oracle. I would go up to her place once or twice a week and we would talk about indigo, and what indigo represents here,” Wright said.
After the soaking, dyeing and drying process, Wright works on the surface with house paint, tape and glitter, sometimes even dragging Spanish moss across the surface.
“When I put that indigo in the ocean, I’m collecting the energy, collecting the songs, the mourning, the love and the joy. I wanted to capture the love that mothers have for their daughters, that fathers have for their sons. I wanted it to vibrate and shift the energy in the Gibbes,” Wright said. “That was my motivation.”
Wright came to Charleston for his residency with only paint brushes, as his intention was to source everything from the Lowcountry.
“I wanted everything to be Charleston,” he said. “I selected lines and shapes that I saw driving around. I tried to capture sunsets, the way the light hits the marsh, the birds dancing in the sky.
“Every smudge, every color choice, it was all inspired by what I had taken in from Charleston. What I heard in the sound of Charleston,” he continued. “I believe there are voices there that are not heard, that are still crying out. I wanted to honor those people.
“I’m not a politician, I’m not an activist, I’m just an artist,” Wright said. “What I really wanted to do was pay tribute to those that came before me. I wanted to give them a voice.”
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