'American Gullah'depicts the unsung pioneers of South Carolina and of America. The story behind its creation is compelling. The Gullahs are descendants of West Africans who were forced to the colony through the trans-Atlantic slave trade. While painting 'American Gullah', artist Sonja Griffin Evans was inspired to include many symbolisms in this masterpiece to tell an amazing mesmerizing story. Each subject in the painting spoke to her; telling her of the secrets that lies within them; passing down to her, a Gullah descendant, a story in traditional African storytelling form. In addition to being knowledgeable about the process of cultivating rice, West African people also had the advantage of being able to easily adapt to the moist Carolina climate and landscape. This was primarily the case because the southeastern marsh landscape resembled that of West Africa. The combination of all these things made West African slaves one of the most valuable assets on South Carolina rice plantations, giving them a major role in the successful production and preparation of rice. During the Colonial Period, coastal South Carolina was the largest producer of rice in America. South Carolina became one of the richest of the North American Colonies; and Charlestown (now Charleston), its capital and principal port, one of the wealthiest and most fashionable cities in early America. Later, because of the extraordinary success in South Carolina, the rice plantation system was extended farther south into coastal Georgia, where it also prospered. The production of this crop required its workers to possess knowledge of the land and rice cultivation, as well a sufficient labor force able to maintain it. Due to the omission of this crop in their European culture, English colonists who settled the rich North American land lacked the expertise required for the production of rice. Thus, the huge task of cultivating, processing, and packaging rice on South Carolina Plantations was commonly assigned to the enslaved Africans. This task, though foreign to European colonists, proved to be quite common to the enslaved Africans who had been purposely imported from the rice growing region of West Africa. Where many English planters had failed in their previous attempts at growing and processing rice, the knowledge and rice-growing skills possessed by West Africans gave them a newfound success at cultivating the crop. Although the benefits of rice production were many for the planters of South Carolina plantation owners, these benefits were rarely experienced by the enslaved Africans who were responsible for this success. For the enslaved Africans, the process of cultivating rice was a demanding and potentially life- threatening job that forced them to work tirelessly each day to complete the necessary tasks. In addition to being knowledgeable about the process of cultivating rice, West African people also had the advantage of being able to easily adapt to the moist Carolina climate and landscape. This was primarily the case because the southeastern marsh landscape resembled that of West Africa. The combination of all these things made West African slaves one of the most valuable assets on South Carolina rice plantations, giving them a major role in the successful production and preparation of rice.
The Man in 'American Gullah' is holding a simple primitive garden tool, a hoe, in his left hand; symbolizing that he is left handed. It is said that left handed people make up a higher percentage of geniuses; they are normally creative, great at math and have great spatial intelligence. The complex cultivation of rice required all of these skills in order to design the many canals, dams and regulate the flow of water. As you continue to observe 'American Gullah', you notice that there is something stuffed deep down inside his overalls' pocket with the words 'Carolina Gold' painted on it. In a slight warrior stance, he stands slightly in front of the woman holding the hoe that was used to maneuver thousands of acres of the Carolina Coast. His protective warrior instinct makes him position her behind him to protect her. He also positions her on his right; a place of honor.
Painted on the bosom of the Woman in 'American Gullah' are the words 'Rice Coast', representing all of her culture and traditions she brought with her; with aspirations of passing it down to her children and hopefully her children's children. She holds to her womb a winnowing basket, which was used in the harvesting of rice after it was collected from the fields and threshed. Threshing, which involved removing the rice from the hulls, involved the strenuous process of repeatedly pounding the rice using a tool uniquely created by the enslaved African known as a mortar and pestle. The hulls were then separated from the rice through the shifting of the hulls in this winnowing basket. The winnowing basket (a circle), symbolizes that once the entire process was complete, it began again with the preparation of the land for the next season’s crop. But more importantly, it represents her connectivity to her native land. It is a doorway into the physical world that allows free access to and from the spirit world. Although she is enslaved in this new world, her longing to return to her homeland will never be broken.
Unlike American Gothic, there is no home or worldly possessions in 'American Gullah', just the two subjects standing there with unintentional understated facial features, which emerged out of the texture on the canvas Evans was painting on. They are standing in the rice field with only mere hopes of receiving their rewards in the afterlife, symbolized by the three birds in the clearing of the clouds, which is prevalent in many of Sonja Griffin Evans' paintings, representing the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
The coast of the Sea Islands is the landscape woven into the Gullah heritage and their traditions. THEY ARE ONE... With the growing concerns of expected high rising sea levels caused by the effects of Climate Change in the Carolina Rice Coast, the painting 'American Gullah' is a satire, a sort of traditional African trickster tale. It brings into light a very serious problem that affects all living things, in all regions around the world, in all different ways and in all aspects of life. The very dangerous complex and calculated system of inland rice cultivation, created by the enslaved West Africans in the Carolina Rice Coast, is now what is being examined and studied to save it.
The Man in Evans’ painting, ‘American Gullah' is a Culture Hero: A mythological, but yet real character who changes the world by inventing or discovering something. What he has stuffed in his pocket is his ability to calculate formulas, labor and build the dangerously complex system for inland rice cultivation in the Carolina Rice Coast. He understands that the talents he has been gifted to calculate this complex formula is truly the 'Carolina Gold'. He holds the solution; the mathematical formula to reverse the inflow of water to the Carolina Rice Coast. He foreknew the potential problem of high rising sea levels because his spatial intelligence not only allowed him to visualize in three dimension in the physical realm, but also in the spiritual realm. Both the Man and Woman in 'American Gullah', built their riches in Heaven; the spirit world. They knew that the world they were living in was not their home.
The Africans cultivated rice long before Europeans arrived in the continent. People living in the floodplains at the bend of the Niger River have been doing so for some 2,000–3,000 years ago. The Man in the painting 'American Gullah' knew the true value was inside of him, instead of the byproduct of his Divine intelligence; rice. He also foreknew that one day he would return through his descendants and his works would save them. "We all have genes that come from our ancestors that aren't used - they're not turned on. So we actually carry ancient genes with us. If you could figure out how to turn those on, you could resurrect ancient characteristics from our ancestors." -Homer A. Jack