A week away from February and the recognition of Black History Month, the Telfair Museums’ Jepson Center will open two new exhibitions this week that will contemplate various narratives of the African American experience. 

Contemporary artist Carrie Mae Weems’ exhibit, ‘Sea Island Series, 1991-1992’ explores Gullah-Geechee culture in the South. Weems looks specifically at the coastal regions of Georgia and South Carolina using black and white photography, folkloric texts and ceramic plates.

Conceptual artist Paul Stephen Benjamin’s “Reinterpreting the Sound of Blackness” analyzes the concept of blackness through stacks of video monitors, textiles and even audio clips that re-appropriate elements of speeches and performances by Lil Wayne and Aretha Franklin. According to a recent Telfair press release, both exhibitions consider questions about the impact of African American culture on American history. 

SCAD is very familiar with Carrie Mae Weems, according to Rachel Reese, Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at Telfair Museums. Weems was the deFINE ART 2016 honoree and keynote speaker and presented the exhibition “Carrie Mae Weems: Considered” at the SCAD Museum of Art.

“She became really interested in looking for her African roots, and she discovered the Gullah culture and community,” Reese said. “She traveled here and researched the area and met with people and read a lot of folklore about the region, and then made this body of work.” 

SCAD District

A piece from Carrie Mae Weems’s “Sea Island Series, 1991-1992.” Image courtesy of Telfair Museums.

Weems works in series, and her “Sea Island Series” provides an intimate look at place, specifically the Sea Islands region and its people through folklore that she has appropriated and re-authored, according to Reese. Since the ’80s, Weems has coupled text with photography, which is evident in the series at the Jepson.

“But it’s not a straightforward documentary approach,” Reese said. “Something that really interested her about folklore was it’s a way to have direct communication about a people or a place but you can tell it’s her artistic subjectivity about place.”

The Gullah community has been called “the most African of American cultures” as its members are descendants from a West African tribe who were brought to the United States as slaves, according to Reese. The Gullah-Geechee community developed a culture and language known as Gullah which is still spoken in the area today.

The folklore Weems re-authored was written in the early 1900s, and Reese said she pulled inspiration from people who were writing about the Sea Islands region from multiple perspectives.

“She’s rewritten that text to reclaim authorship,” Reese said. “For [her], it’s about championing an African American history and understanding that it’s a very complex history and celebrating that.”

Paul Stephen Benjamin is an Atlanta-based conceptual artist whose work explores the color black and its complex societal interpretations. “Reinterpreting the Sound of Blackness” will be the artist’s largest solo presentation to date and includes new site-specific works that investigate the concept of the “sound of black” through readily available materials – there are over one hundred monitors used in the show – to act as a metaphor for an idea.

SCAD District

One of Paul Stephen Benjamin’s monitor displays featured in “Reinterpreting the Sound of Blackness.” Image courtesy of Telfair Museums.

“It’s like a meditation on the color black and using it as a way to talk about other intersectional issues like race, gender, even nationality and patriotism,” Reese said. “The walls are painted five shades of black . . . the titles are the titles of the black. In this exhibition we’re talking about the word black a lot and the etymology of the word and also how it’s used in different contexts not only related to race.”

Visitors to the exhibits will first see “Reinterpreting the Sound of Blackness” before wandering through “Sea Island Series, 1991-1992,” creating an appropriate flow of ideas according to Reese.

The Telfair will host respective lectures from each artist the first two weeks in February, with a lecture by Weems Thursday, Feb. 1, at 6 p.m. and one with Benjamin Thursday, Feb. 8, also at 6 p.m. More information about the exhibits and tickets can be found via the Telfair’s website.

Written by Emilie Kefalas.