The Emanuel AME Church on Calhoun Street practically has history spilling out of its doorway. Founded in 1818, it’s the oldest AME church in South Carolina, and pre-dates every other AME congregation in Charleston by almost 50 years. Denmark Vesey, who in 1822 organized a slave uprising and was later hanged for it, was an Emanuel minister — because of his involvement, the church was burned to the ground. The current building, a striking, white Gothic edifice, was built by African Americans in 1891 and still has its original altar, communion rail, and pews.
It’s a work of art in itself, says S.C. state senator and Emanuel’s pastor Clementa Pinckney, which is part of why the institution has a strong connection to the local arts community. Emanuel participates in the MOJA Festival and Piccolo Spoleto, and frequently hosts concerts by the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Gospel Choir.
Now the church is breaking into visual arts as well, hosting the Passages Art Show and Sale. “Our church’s service has always been one of mind, body, and soul, and out of that comes the need to partner with the arts community,” the Rev. Pinckney says. “To have a piece of art dedicated to God be the place of an art exhibit is, I believe, a great honor.”
Cookie Washington, a local textile artist and arts activist, is organizing the show. Washington makes art quilts that frequently reference the feminine divine — you might have seen a quilt of hers at last year’s Mermaids and Merwomen in Black Folklore exhibit at the City Gallery, which she also curated. Passages will feature the work of around 25 African-American artists from across the country, including collage artist James Denmark and his grandson Dimitri, indigo artist Arianne King Comer, weaver Georgette Sanders, fiber artist Addelle, mixed media artist Karole Turner Campbell, and glass artist Steve Hazard. The show also has a social aspect — Washington has asked all her artists to fill out “race cards” as part of NPR’s Race Card Project. The project asks people to think about the word “race” and then write a six-word essay on blank 3×5 cards, which can later be shared with the community. Emanuel’s congregation will fill out race cards, and visitors to the Passages show will also have a chance to do so. After the show closes, Washington will mail the completed cards to NPR, which collects them and shares the six-word essays on theracecardproject.com.
Passages Art Show is aimed partly at commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 150th anniversary of the formal reestablishment of the AME denomination in South Carolina, but it also addresses what Washington thinks is a real problem in Charleston’s art world. “The reason why I thought of this was I was down in the Market one day — this was after the City of Charleston said, ‘No, we’re not going to do a big thing for the anniversary of the Emancipation’ — and I thought, there’s really no place for black art in this town,” Washington says. “It was raining and those black basket ladies were sitting on folding chairs almost out in the street, weaving their baskets. And I’m like, this is an amazing, 400-year old beautiful craft … it’s demeaning. We still don’t honor the people who built this city. Everywhere you look, African Americans built this city.”
So she started reaching out to African-American artists to gauge their interest in participating in a group art exhibition. The response she got was overwhelming. “Because there is no outlet for African-American art here, artists are hungry to show their work somewhere,” she says. “I’ve gotten calls from artists from New York and California and Washington state in all different mediums.”
The response was so positive that she decided to not only host the exhibition but to open a permanent gallery for African-American artists. The gallery, which will also be called Passages, will show the work of artists from around the country in a circa 1865 Freedman’s cottage that the Emanuel AME Church owns and is currently renovating. “At first I wanted only local artists,” Washington says. “But then I realized that, depending on who you talk to, between 40 and 60 percent of all enslaved Africans came through the port of Charleston. So that was your passage into the New World whether your terminal destination was Charleston or you went on to somewhere else. So I thought that wherever you’re living now, there’s a pretty good chance that your relatives, your ancestors, came here first.”
The Rev. Pinckney is enthusiastic about the idea as well. “There’s currently no small, boutique gallery where African-American artists can display their art downtown,” he says. “This is an extension of Mother Emanuel’s legacy.”
The building is currently going through the Board of Architectural Review’s (BAR) review process, but if everything goes as planned, Washington is optimistic that Passages Art Gallery will be open next spring. She, Arianne King Comer, and Linda Mayo Perez will be Passages’ principals and will run the gallery as a nonprofit. Although the BAR review was supposed to be finished in July, in a way the holdup is a good thing. “That gives us some time to fundraise, because we will need some financial support the first couple of years to keep the doors open,” Washington says.
And in the meantime, the Passages Art Show will give locals a preview of the gallery to come, and maybe help foster a dialogue between people of different races, Washington says. “I believe that art can heal a lot of things in our nation, and I’m just hoping that this art show and then the gallery will open people’s eyes and open people’s doors.”
Although Passages Art Show and Sale will run during the two weekends of MOJA, it’s not affiliated with the festival.