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Matters of the art

Gullah women inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and the pandemic

By Nancy Vineburgh + Photography Sandy Dimke

As a tribute to Black History Month, we present the work and views of five accomplished female Gullah artists: Diane Britton Dunham, Bernice Tate, Lisa Rivers, Cassandra Gillens and Saundra Renee Smith. These women discuss what matters most in their art, and how the Black Lives Matter movement and the pandemic have influenced their creative process.

Many common themes emerged from their interviews. All of the artists are self-taught. Their influences include a deep commitment to their maternal legacies, a desire to tell ancestral stories, and inspiration from spirituality and superstition. All share a strong work ethic instilled in them by parents, grandparents and family life.

The impact of the BLM movement and the pandemic elicited diverse and compelling comments. All agree the message is about freedom and having the opportunity to be heard. But all expressed fear for their children. “We all deserve the right to walk down the street, the right to just sit in our car.” Some see the pandemic as an equalizer, a shared enemy. “Covid has no face!”

One artist summed it up eloquently: “It’s almost like warfare, psychological warfare. We are all combat victims, all of us, not just Blacks. In the end, I believe we have to begin a narrative that’s going to foster communication in our homes, among our families, then out to our communities and then to the nation so that we can begin to heal.”

Because several of the artists’ BLM movement-related pieces are not representative of their usual style, we have included representative pieces of their work alongside their art inspired by the BLM movement.

Gullah Fisherman • The image of legendary Capt. Dick Middleton, a revered St. Helena fisherman, is surrounded by haint blue, Diane’s favorite color. A Lowcountry superstition, this color protects the individual and keeps the evil spirits at bay.

Diane Britton Dunham

What I See MMXX • According to Diane, this piece in reaction to the BLM movement “comes from a different part of the brain. One is telling the ancestral past. The other is current, more futuristic.”

Having moved to the Lowcountry 41 years ago, Diane became fascinated with African-American Southern history. Her ancestral art is primarily based upon the stories of her mother, grandmother and the elders of the Gullah community. “I try to tell the stories of tradition and superstition, which is an embedded part of our culture.” She attributes her strong work ethic to her grandfather who said, “Whatever the hand finds to do, do it with all thy might and pride, even if what you are working on is not for you.” Diane paints mostly in acrylics.

Little Girl Ruby • Lisa painted this image of Ruby Bridges, the first African-American child to desegregate the all-White William Frantz Elementary School in Louisiana during the New Orleans school desegregation crisis on November 14, 1960. Note the federal marshal accompanying Ruby to school.

Lisa Rivers

Peace and Justice • This piece juxtaposes the orderly protesters in business attire of the Martin Luther King era with the intensity and relaxed dress of today’s BLM protesters.

On Lisa’s 52nd birthday, her children, daring her to paint, gave her 52 canvases. Lisa painted until the sun came up and, “while I was painting, all I felt was happiness.” Lisa loves abstract art, Gullah art, urban art and enjoys painting animals. Her medium includes acrylics, oil and coptic markers. She recently opened her own gallery, Legacy, in Beaufort on Bay Street.

917 Bay St. Suite C, Beaufort, SC

Cassandra Gillens

Cassandra remembers going on a Greyhound bus with her grandmother from Beaufort to Boston, where she lived as a youngster. At the station, she bought cotton to remind her of her beloved Lowcountry while in New England. She wants people “to see what used to be — memories of what was because things are moving so fast.” As you can see from her art, Cassandra has a hard time painting people without a mask. “I have a whole collection of paintings that reflect the BLM movement and Covid-19.”

Marooned • Saundra views her art as “transformational and spiritual.” Here sits a woman on an isolated Sea Island. In the distance is her church, her bedrock. Difficult to see is the gold leaf on her skirt and headpiece symbolic of her value.

Saundra Renee Smith

Emerge from Darkness • A magnificent starburst of hope.

Raised on an isolated Sea Island, Saundra learned to be self-sufficient and courageous like the women around her. “I have memories of waking up early in the morning and watching my mother down at the water’s edge picking oysters, so we had fresh oysters for breakfast. “For me it was idyllic.” Saundra’s activism is church-based, providing food to seniors and community members dealing with Covid.

Don’t Shoot! (The Urgency of Now!) • This 4-foot sculpture of a young black girl in a hoodie embodies her art and her beliefs. “My art is womanistic. It represents ALL women and young girls. I want to empower young women. I sense these young girls are afraid; they don’t know what do, so you soothe them and that is part of the urgency of NOW.” Bernice says we must talk to our children about what is going on today. “I would like for our (Black) kids to be able to pull off that hoodie and put their hands down.”

Bernice Tate

Bernice grew up on a farm in Sheldon and moved to White Plains, New York, after high school. A lifelong art lover, Bernice was reminded while viewing a Picasso one day of her mother’s quilts, whose designs she so admired. She wondered what she could do with those patterns. A unique, artistic process ensued in which her husband digitized the quilt images from which Bernice creates her work – mainly collage and sculpture.