"We are benefactors of our Ancestors. So let us be good stewards of what we have been given." - Sonja Griffin Evans
The American Gullah Exhibition' is a traveling exhibit that depicts the unsung pioneers of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor and of America. The story behind this culture's creation is compelling. The Gullahs are descendants of West Africans who were forced to the colony through the trans-Atlantic slave trade. They were brought to South Carolina because of their knowledge of the process of cultivating rice. However, they also possessed other intellectual prowess. In addition, West African people brought their culture with many valuable assets that have influenced American culture. They easily adapted to the moist Carolina climate and landscape primarily, because the southeastern marsh landscape resembled that of West Africa. The combination of all these things made West African enslaved people one of the most valuable assets on South Carolina rice plantations, giving them a major role in the successful production and preparation of rice and the major success of the economy in South Carolina. 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.
Due to an estimated 100,000 West Africans being brought to Gadsden's Wharf in Charleston, South Carolina, many West Africans were purchased and taken to cities throughout the nation. This forced migration led to a high percentage of all African American's ability to trace their roots back to South Carolina, which attracts so many visitors each year. The American Gullah Collection effectively communicates the Gullah culture and Lowcountry living with its viewers. Each piece lures viewers into the paintings and leaves them with a desire to learn more about this captivating Pan African American cultural treasure. Sonja Griffin Evans' American Gullah Collection reflects compassion and redeeming love. It gives a visual example of one's humanity. It immortalizes the divinity, an expression of the soul. It brings to life, through art, the Gullah story; while instilling in the viewer's heart a yearning to visit the amazingly beautiful, historical and spiritual destinations which encompasses the Gullah culture.
'Three Marys' was painted during my three city invitational exhibition tour in France this past Spring, I visited the Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery in Nantes. Nantes was one of my exhibiting cities and France's largest slave port. Along the riverside lies this memorial museum. Unique in France, the memorial pays homage to all those who have fought and are still fighting against slavery in all its forms throughout the world. I walked along the riverside where 2,000 plaques commemorate the voyages of slave ships from Nantes as well as the major trading posts in Africa and America and followed the commemorative trail lined with quotations in all 47 languages of those countries associated with the slave trade. The trail continues underground into an area designed to mimic the holds of the ships. It is a moving and worthwhile experience.
Slave ships were given Christian names for a safe journey, while transporting enslaved Africans in horrendous conditions below. One of the ship's names caught my attention, Three Mary's. I was immediately inspired to paint these three women; each of them will give birth to many African subcultures. Written on each painting in French are the three cash crops they were sold into slavery for in America; rice, cotton and indigo. On the top left corner of each painting is what they were purchased with; a mere copper bangle. Written on the pieces is the name of the slave port city, Nantes, where nearly 500,000 Africans came through. The summer of last year I was asked to paint a piece for the South Carolina Aquarium's R.I.C.E. Initiative, I entitled it American Gullah. It would become the signature piece and inspiration of the American Gullah Collection. The Aquarium is located in Gadsden Wharf in Charleston, SC; where over 100,000 Africans came through. It is also located near the site where the new International African American Museum will be built. I realize why painting the 'American Gullah Collection' was so important. You see, I was inspired to create and exhibit the American Gullah Collection from Charleston,SC (largest slave port city in America) to Nantes, France (Largest Slave port city in France).
In historical African American grave sites, you will often see items relating to the sea; such as sea shells and more, on the graves of the enslaved Africans. They believed the sea is what brought them to this world (America) in this life and the sea is what will take them back home in the afterlife and there they will finally be free. Divine inspiration. I am going from one Slave port city to the next picking up precious cargo; the hopes, dreams and stories of my ancestors. I am taking their spirits back home to freedom through my art, while discovering how I, we became 'American Gullah'.
'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
Dimensions: 36 x 48
High Cotton depicts
'You Don' Own Me' was painted after a visit to the Middleton Plantation. On this plantation indigo was grown; the second cash crop for the lowcountry. Grown on lowland swamps, indigo proved to be a natural seasonal complement to rice; and large plantations intensively staffed with enslaved Africans proved to be ideal for combing the two products. By the mid-1750s indigo production in the colony was in high gear and 500,000 pounds were being exported annually. On the grounds of the Middleton Plantation is Eliza's House (c. 1870). It was once occupied by former enslaved people at Middleton Place. This two-family duplex was constructed of mill-sawn weatherboard with a central, double (back-to-back) fireplace, and the interior and exterior walls were whitewashed. There was no connecting access between the two units, but occupants of each half had equal use of the porch and the loft. It is known as "Eliza's House" in memory of Eliza Leach, a South Carolina African American born in 1891, and the last person to live in the building. Eliza also worked over 40 years at Middleton Place, performing a variety of duties, from sweeping and raking in the Gardens to collecting tickets and distributing brochures to visitors.
The Gullah ancestors were not only surrounded by indigo, but they were saturated with the spiritual understanding of the truth in which it represented. It is said the color indigo is characterized by very high frequency vibration and with purple and gold, is considered to be a color that expresses spirituality, elevation and intense search of absolute truth. From a spiritual color indigo is considered the reflection of the Holy Spirit. Indigo has an effect on balance and coordination, self-reflection, mental clarity and wisdom. It has a balancing influence on our frustrations and fears. The indigo color energy relates to our true understanding of life. When our indigo energy is balanced we are more able to understand the meaning of our lives and see the need to help others as part of our own spiritual growth.
When touring Eliza's house you notice a display with the first names of the enslaved that were owned by the Middleton family. Next to their names is a dollar amount, given to show their worth. I noticed the amount of $1.00 besides someone's name. This inspired me to paint 'You Don't Own Me'. The woman in this painting is known to be disobedient, which did not make for a good slave; therefore they placed a value on her at $1.00. Her stance with her shoulders held straight and her head held high shows that she knows her worth. She understands that she is a child of God and is and will be free. And if she could turn around she would say, "You Don't Own Me."
"Don't let anybody make you feel you are nobody" -Martin Luther King Jr.
Da' Gullah Song Bird (Sold)
Dimensions: 12 x 36
Along the Gullah Geechee coast you will find small places of worship built on plantations during slavery, Praise Houses or as I say, Prays Houses. They still serve an important spiritual role in the Gullah community today. Praise Houses still contain the prayers of our ancestors. Their prayers and their faith were so powerful that even the chains of slavery or this world could not contain them. Prayers for the protection of not only their generation, but generations to come. I remember my grandparents used to say, 'These are praying times.' They not only prayed for us, they understood and believed that faith without works is dead. They did their part. They ran a good race. They passed the baton and they continue to pray for our generation to run and fight the good fight of faith. The little boy in the painting is holding on to the works of his ancestors. He is being lead by the spirit to step out on the faith of our fathers to continue a good work; to make a better world for the next generation. Will we do the same?
'Da' Gullah Crabber' brought his fishing skills to the Sea Islands from West African coastal countries. The Gullahs have inhabited the Sea Islands for generations and their unique traditions remain largely intact. A large percentage of all people of African descent can trace their roots back to the Lowcountry. This painting reflects a glimpse into the intriguing Gullah coastal culture. In this painting he is catching blue crabs the old fashioned way. Often associated with our neighbors in the North, many of the blue crabs being served across the nation can also trace their roots back to the Lowcountry landscape.
Sonja Griffin Evans interprets through art the conservation of the Gullah Experience of the natural world. The Gullah Crabber showcases the daily way of life of the Gullah Geechee traditional self-sustaining practices of the sea islands. They are a distinctive group of African Americans whose origins lie along the coasts of southeastern North Carolina to northern Florida, as well as the adjacent sea islands. They live in small farming and fishing units, having formed a tightly knit community that has survived slavery, the Civil War, and the emergence of modern American culture. Through art, Griffin Evans preserves the coastal lifestyle and spirituality that was created from this unique Pan African American coastal culture. A culture created by a period of relative isolation in rural areas; absorbing new influences from the region.
For the Gullahs, the ocean is as relevant as their culture. It is more than just a part of South Carolina’s landscape; it is a vital resource they need for survival and believe should be protected. The Gullah culture depends on the land and sea life. Gullah/Geechee people have cultivated the land and plied the waters of the Atlantic coast from southeastern North Carolina to northern Florida since the European colonization of North America.
The Gullahs live off the Sea Islands. They have a history in the fishing tradition. It is essential to sustaining their way of life and families; sharing their traditional fishing methods with the next generation. However, the Gullah fisherman are trying to preserve one of their major economic resources; Fishing. The top industries of the Gullah Geechee culture are agriculture, sea work; including harvesting, cast net making, and boat building. The coastal fisheries are essential to the sustainability of Gullah/ Geechee economy. From the waterways of the Sea Islands, Gullahs provide an array of southeastern seafood including whiting, mullet, oysters, clams, shrimp, crabs, and more fresh catch. This is their way of life. Their way of making a living. They also use their catch to maintain their unique culturally inspired dishes such as She Crab Soup, Stewed Shrimp & Rice, Oysters & Rice and more that so many enjoy; locals and tourist alike. The coast of the sea islands is the landscape woven into the Gullah heritage, culture, and their traditions. THEY ARE ONE...
Dimensions: 24 x 36 (Sold)
'Da' First Decoration Day' (Charleston Series) Dimensions: 24 x 30 Price: 12,500.00
The war was over, and Decoration Day had been founded by African Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration. A New York Tribune correspondent witnessed the event, describing “a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before.”
'Da Gullah Rose' represents the Palmetto Rose, quintessential to Charleston, made from South Carolina's official State Tree -- The Palmetto Tree. The legend of the Palmetto Rose is said to have dated back to the Civil War. It's said that southern ladies would give their true love an everlasting Palmetto Rose to keep them safe from harm as they went to war and that their love one would return soon. Today, it’s not uncommon to see the baskets and roses for sale alongside each other in downtown Charleston. Often sold by street vendors, the roses are a modern tourist-economy variation on sweetgrass baskets, which have a rich and well documented history in South Carolina. Enslaved Africans brought the technique used to make the baskets from Africa, and for generations, African American residents of the state’s Low Country sold the baskets in roadside stands outside of Charleston. The baskets, originally made of bulrushes, are now a combination of sweetgrass, palmetto, and pine straw.
Due to each leaves' unique appearance, no two roses are exactly the same. The natural colors may vary from dark green to yellow or tan.The palmetto roses are keepsakes that symbolizes everlasting love. The little girl in the painting knows that she too is a Gullah Rose with so much love inside to give to others. She is offering everyone who views her 'The Gullah Rose' - everlasting love. However, the sadness in her eyes depicts her acknowledgement of the fact that not everyone will want to receive it from her. Will you accept the Gullah Rose?
"I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys." -Solomon