The audio file for this article was produced by the Ceramic Arts Network staff and not read by the author.
In the colonial period in the marshy Lowcountry and Sea Islands of what is now the Southeastern US, adaptation and a blending of diverse ethnic traditions from West and Central Africa gave rise to Gullah culture, the distinctive crafts, foods, songs, and folklore of which continue to define the region today. Gullah, a creole language, is still spoken in some Southern communities, and across the country Americans as disparate as Michelle Obama and Clarence Thomas can boast of Gullah heritage. For Ashlyn Pope, visual arts professor at Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina, ancestral ties to Gullah culture have been not only a point of personal pride, but also a central inspiration for the style and content of her work.
Inspiration from Tradition
Some elements of Pope’s art draw directly from Gullah precedents, for example, the distinctive greenish blue that she occasionally employs for slip decoration. Known as haint blue, the color is historically and culturally apotropaic, serving to ward off evil entities, or haints, that drain the energy from their victims and even steal and wear human skin. As water is kryptonite to these supernatural parasites and they are easily duped by appearances, a tradition arose of using dregs from the dye-processing of indigo, a lucrative crop in the agricultural system of the Old South, to paint the doors, porch ceilings, and window frames of Gullah homes as blue as the coastal waters.
Gullah inspiration is most evident in Pope’s work in the cordlike elements that meander prominently around her vessel forms, in some areas embracing them as relief ornament and in others acquiring utilitarian purpose as handles or feet. The characteristics that give these their appearance of worked fiber evoke the Gullah tradition of sweet grass basket making, but the twining and wrapping are symbolic only: a point of particular importance to Pope. Born and raised in New Jersey, she encountered examples of the distinctive Gullah basketry during summer visits with a grandmother, but never had the opportunity to learn the techniques, which are by convention passed down within families of makers. “I encountered my Gullah ancestry; I didn’t grow up with it,” she explains. “This is my way of recognizing the connection, of solidifying that I belong.”
Despite their many references to weaving, Pope’s vessels address technical issues unique to clay and respond to formal problems specific to pottery. “I didn’t want to make baskets in clay,” she asserts. “That felt wrong to me, because it didn’t speak to why I fell in love with ceramics in the first place.” Part of that attraction evolved from an appreciation of ceramics history. Pope has, for instance, drawn inspiration from African vessel forms and the linear motifs of Dutch Delftware decoration. A more visceral connection to clay inheres in what she describes as the “perfectly imperfect” relationship between hand and material in the process of making. Whether thrown cups or handbuilt bottles, vases, and jars, her works retain traces of their creation in surfaces with slight undulations and faint horizontal striations from the dragging of fingers. “It’s important for me to leave some of that around, because I’m human,” she explains. I want that to show up in the work itself.”
Connections to Humanity
Impressions of the human hand in clay, an apotropaic blue, and ties to a cultural history of basketry—so far, so good. You are not likely to raise many hackles (or run afoul of state law in Florida, where the historic Gullah region dips down to Jacksonville) if you confine yourself to discussion of abstract references to humanity and sufficiently pasteurized accounts of history. The crucial omission is, of course, that the origins of Gullah culture are inextricable from the “peculiar institution” that built the American South. The brutality of slavery is rarely, and then only symbolically, alluded to in Pope’s work, which she describes as originating in personal reflection rather than activist intent. Nevertheless, the fact that personal reflection for an African American woman so naturally raises the specter of historical injustice suggests that the whitewashing of American history now metastasizing in some authoritarian spheres is nothing less than perpetuation of that injustice. For anyone who values history as more than a tool to be cynically wielded in quests for power, a closer reading of Pope’s work is warranted.
Clay is the starting point. Found in some quantity in nearly every handful of soil on earth, it is more or less a universal substance. But its universality carries over only so far into the sphere of art, where representation charges every material element with the potential for signification and every signifier is read in light of context. For some viewers the smooth, brown, and slightly lustrous surfaces of Pope’s works invoke immediate associations with human skin. Others might only make such a connection if the clay were a different color. The point is not accusatory, but neither is it incidental. Pope’s works are autobiographical, reflections centered in part on identity and body, and to view them that way without prompting requires seeing brown as a color of skin. This is a simple matter of denotation, and with respect to that form of interpretation Pope hopes only that her work might help to “normalize brown bodies.”
Connotations of Representation
Denotation involves recognizing that a representation bears a resemblance to something in the world, but connotation is another story. Reading the connotations of a representation is a process of assigning meaning, associating ideas, and even ascribing value. This, of course, is the problem when connotations of brown skin are invoked in the US, a problem that raises moral and ethical questions. The history of racism cannot be closeted without risk of perpetuating its legacy, but Pope is more interested in emphasizing positive connotations than in skirmishing over negative stereotypes. The gold-luster crowns that decorate the surfaces of some of her vessels are important in this respect. Due to the historical structures of many West African societies, she explains, “a lot of people in the African American community consider themselves the decedents of kings and queens. I wanted to take that idea and put it on pots. It’s a moment of pride despite the hardships and limitations that have been placed on our bodies.”
The simple assertion that Black lives matter has stirred such animosity in some quarters that it would be naïve not to wonder how far an African American artist can reflect on her identity before risking so-called “anti-woke” censorship. In 1838 at the Speedwell Ironworks in Pope’s hometown of Morristown, New Jersey, the first telegraph was established by Alfred Vail and Samuel F. B. Morse. “It’s an aspect of my identity that I was born and raised in a town that had so much importance for America,” she says in reference to a work in which the familiar dots and dashes of Morse code are slip-trailed over the surface. Surely, few would find controversy in this reference to American ingenuity. However, encoded in the marks of the decoration is a message: “Gullah girl.” The clandestine connotations of this assertion of heritage are intentional. “That was the experience of the Gullah people,” Pope explains. “The reason our culture survived slavery was because it was secretive.”
Given current attempts at censorship of African American history in public education, it is fair to ask whether the necessity of surreptitious preservation of the facts of culture and history is not just an issue of the past but also—and incredibly in a nation that prides itself on its dedication to freedom of speech—the shape of things to come. This question hangs like a miasma around Pope’s recent installation Birth of a Nation: When Cotton was King.
The work’s title invokes the 1915 Hollywood silent film Birth of a Nation, notorious for its glaring racial stereotypes and its heroic portrayal of the KKK. In Pope’s installation 184 vessels bearing decoration in red, white, or blue sit on 22 wooden shelves, the whole forming an unmistakable reference to the American flag. Common to each of the vessels is an area of exposed brown clay—implicitly in reference to African American bodies—and an encircling imprint of sisal rope. In Pope’s earlier works, the rope impressions were prompted by memories of childhood abuse, but in Birth of a Nation the connotations cannot fail to invoke slavery. The cotton bolls that decorate the surfaces of some vessels—surrogate stars in the field of blue—reinforce that reading. Contextualized by Pope’s installation title, the impressions of rope readily suggest lynching. And, of course, there is the metaphor of bondage within a social system that, despite the century and a half since the Emancipation Proclamation, has yet to surmount its obstacles to racial justice.
The impressions of rope can mean all these things to the conscience of a nation. To Pope they acknowledge that her personal ties to a historical culture cannot be separated from a history of bonds of another more resilient and troubling cultural stripe. In these days of regression and increasingly blatant state-sponsored undermining of racial equity, that is not likely to be forgotten.
the author Glen R. Brown is a professor of art history at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas.