As I view my painting 'Steal Away' from my Underground Railroad Secret Quilt Code Collection on the new Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor pamphlet, I can't help but to think about the symbolism and purpose of the Underground Railroad that is depicted in this painting. I think of how this system for my ancestors has evolved from guiding people to freedom, to the creation of the Negro Motorist Green Book to now guiding people through the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor.
The corridor spans the coast from Wilmington, North Carolina to Jacksonville, Florida. I am honored and grateful for my art to be used to help market, promote, preserve, and educate others, but I am elated to give honor and appreciation to my ancestors through my art. They have left a treasure trove of culture and contributions for us to share with the world!
So as you 'Steal Away' through the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor this year, pick up the New! pamphlet to help guide you through and learn more about the Gullah Geechee people.
"Showing appreciation goes a mighty long way." - A Very Wise Man
Artist Sonja Griffin Evans
During my three city invitational exhibition tour in France this past Spring, I visited the Memorial to the Abolitionment 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'.
The '2016 Amazing Grace' commemorative ornament is a special ornament that celebrates the history of South Carolina and of the United States. Each ornament is signed by the artist and includes a scroll with the story of how this piece was created. It is a symbol of good will to all men; One Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." 'Amazing Grace' is a great addition to any Christmas tree.
I then began to question myself aloud, "How can I love a man whom I have never met?" The answer, "It's because he has done so much for me." Congressman Lewis was also given my 'Amazing Grace' 2016 commemorative ornament. The ornament depicts a woman carrying, what seems to be a child wrapped in a blanket, on December 31, 1862; a very special evening for the enslaved Africans. It was the night before the Emancipation Proclamation took effect, freeing all the slaves in the Confederate states. The Amazing Grace ornament represents freedom for all; One Nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. I asked him to deliver another to the White House and the Congressman agreed. It is being presented special delivery to the White House for the Christmas tree by one of the most courageous persons the Civil Rights Movement ever produced," John Lewis. A man who has dedicated his life to protecting human rights, securing civil liberties, and building what he calls "The Beloved Community” in America. Congressman Lewis is someone whose dedication to the highest ethical standards and moral principles has won him the admiration of many of his colleagues on both sides of the aisle in the United States Congress; "The conscience of the U.S. Congress,” as he is called. Roll Call magazine has said, "John Lewis is a genuine American hero and moral leader who commands widespread respect in the chamber.” I could not have asked of a better person to deliver 'Amazing Grace' to the White House.
Last week Wednesday, I started painting this door. It's entitled ,'The Prays House Door'.
In South Carolina you will find small places of worship built on plantations during slavery, Praise Houses or as I say, Prays Houses, still serve an important spiritual role in the Gullah community today. Written on the door is the Lord's Prayer in Gullah. As I was creating this painting I found a small padlock that would hang on the latch of the door with the key. Once I unlocked the lock and placed it on the latch, I nor others could lock it back again. This morning I realized why. You see, I had opened the door to the prayers of our ancestors. Prayers so powerful that even the chains of slavery or this world could not contain. 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.
I sometimes wonder where would we be if it had not been for the Lord on our side.....
"Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and forever." -Hebrews 13:8
Ending with the Tri-Sigma's 20th Anniversary in Washington, D.C. for a special presentation of my Freedom's Door painting, representing an enslaved african walking through the door for the very last time as a slave on New Year's Eve of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, walking into a new day, a new way of life, and a new found freedom, to someone who fought and continues to fight for freedom, Congressman John Lewis.
The joy is definitely in the journey.....
Established in 1862, Historic Mitchelville is known as the, 'Birthplace of African American Freedom.' The land the people of Mitchelville, South Carolina, had once toiled under the chains of slavery was now their own. The people of Mitchelville were creating a completely new, self-governed culture that would be the guidepost for generations to follow.
I remember reading an article written in the Island Packet that asked what Harriet Tubman did on Hilton Head Island. It stated that Harriet Tubman slept there. The famous Underground Railroad freedom fighter, Harriet Tubman, was sent to Hilton Head to see this bustling town, so she could share the story of Mitchelville’s self-governed success with future freedmen towns. Harriet not only slept there. She witnessed the birth of a new nation. She experienced, right before her eyes, the manifestation of an act of God. She saw a living testament of her life's purpose. Harriet basked in the fulfillment of God's Word of receiving the desires of her heart; her answered prayers for others to taste the sweet fruit of Freedom. She partook in the events that were leading to the very moment of true 'Freedom for All.' It was the Era of Reconstruction. Mitchelville stood for Heaven on earth. The 'Dawn of Freedom'.
I began to read this quote by Harriet Tubman,
“If you hear the dogs, keep going. If you see the torches in the woods, keep going. If there's shouting after you, keep going. Don't ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom, keep going.”
I would further add, “If you see the deconstruction of 'Reconstruction' keep going. Freedom is yours. Own it. "
Hilton Head Island, South Carolina had the pleasure of welcoming the 'Mother of Freedom', Harriet Tubman. I believe for her, Mitchelville was a place that provided rest for the weary and spurred hope for brighter days to come.
See more.... 2016 Nationational Underground Railroad Conference
I believe each piece that I create is predestined for someone. It's just a matter of them finding their piece.
The day I finished 'Amazing Grace' I met the father of South Carolina State Representative Jenny Horne walking along the sidewalk in downtown Beaufort. We were both going to an event and struck up a conversation. CNN stated that Jenny Horne's tearful Confederate flag speech shook the S.C. State House. Was this a coincidental meeting with her father? I say it was predestinated. Her words stirred by passion in the debate eventually led lawmakers to vote to remove the Confederate battle flag from the State House grounds. Her words would burn themselves into the hearts of men.
Recently, I picked up the remaining pieces from my art exhibit at the Orangeburg County Fine Arts Center in Orangeburg, SC. I met the featured artist for the month of April, Winston Kennedy. We were discussing his use of the conch shell.
In his paintings, the conch shell represents Mother Mary or Yemaya the name of the African deity that protect those who travel the waters. One of her graphic symbols is the conch shell. He uses the conch shell as a symbol of vigilence and protection of those who have been forcibly abducted and travelled in the Atlantic Slave trade.
We then observed my painting "Speak to Us Now" which depicts three little girls listening to conch shells.