Alex Bortolot, chief content strategist at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia), explains that its Charleston Drawing and Dining Rooms, along with the 16 other interiors that the museum has on display, is “Mainly about the history of decorative arts.” Art, however, is not created in a vacuum. There are always cultural, social and political components to it.
The staff at Mia are attempting to make the artifacts on display more meaningful by revealing deeper truths about the people who lived in the 18th century home and plantation of Colonel John Stuart, superintendent of Indian Affairs for Britain’s southern colonies and owner of enslaved Africans.
Says Bortolot about the exhibits prior to the upgrade, “The effect was telling stories that excluded the stories of people who didn’t happen to be of European descent and generally speaking, quite well-to-do. In 2014, we decided to do something about that.”
As described by promotional materials, the Voices of Colonial America exhibit features “West African and African American objects that will tell important stories of Charleston’s dependence on enslaved West Africans’ indigenous knowledge of rice cultivation, which was exploited for commercial gain, and the West African cultural connections that persist in South Carolina today.”
The Mia has had the Charleston Drawing and Dining Rooms since it was donated in 1931, but this is the first time the fine art museum has attempted to render it in such a manner as to include the experiences of West Africans who were so instrumental in Stuart’s and by extension, the country’s, wealth.
This exhibit now rightly positions those enslaved…as repositories of exclusive technical expertise.
Stuart owned enslaved people who were strategically imported from Africa’s so-called “Rice Coast” for their deep technical knowledge in the cultivation of rice, which he grew on his plantation and sold for great profit.
Professor Joseph Opala explains in the article “The Gullah: Rice, Slavery, and the Sierra Leone-American Connection” that Africa’s rice coast was “the traditional rice-growing region of West Africa, stretching from Senegal down to Sierra Leone and Liberia.”
Traditional narratives around slavery and slaves diminished African contributions as mere tools or extension of farm animals. But this exhibit now rightly positions those enslaved by Stuart as repositories of exclusive technical expertise.
Jan-Lodewijk Grootaers, head of the Arts of Africa and the Americas/curator of African Art at Mia, explains, “Rice had been cultivated in West Africa for a long time and there has been a lot of know-how accumulated. Slave traders targeted people who had knowledge of rice cultivation.” Advertisements would add the requirement that slaves be from the so-called “rice coast so they could take advantage of their knowledge.”
In a comment via email for this article, UCLA Professor Judith Carney further observes, “Enslaved Africans were responsible for introducing many crops and farming methods appropriate to farming subtropical and tropical regions of the Americas.”
The West African artifacts on display include all-important rice baskets. The museum commissioned the baskets from South Carolina artist and basketmaker Henrietta Snype, whose family has been making them for five generations. There is also a video installation that includes Snype, along with Sierra Leonean Jonathan Rose, whose family was enslaved in North America during the colonial era, only to be sent to Sierra Leone after the Civil War; and world-renowned Chef Pierre Thiam, who hails from Senegal and has made it his life’s mission to be an unofficial ambassador of Senegalese cuisine. All functioned as consultants, to a certain degree, when the museum decided to upgrade the exhibit.
Snype explains that the baskets on display were used by the slaves on the plantation. “It’s called a winnowing basket or a rice fanner and was especially made for gathering rice.” The baskets are made from natural materials such as sweet grass, palmetto, bulrush and pine needles, which are similar to what they are made from in Africa.
In addition to being a plantation owner, Scottish-born Colonel Stuart was also superintendent for the southern district of the British Indian Affairs Department from 1761 to 1779. As Mia’s Jill Ahlberg Yohe, assistant curator of Native American Art explains, Stuart “Worked closely primarily with the Cherokee leaders who lived in that area.” The Charleston Drawing and Dining Rooms exhibit also incorporates Native American art, artifacts, and video installations.
The Voices of Colonial America exhibit is part of Living Rooms, an initiative to present Mia’s historic interiors and decorative arts collections in new ways. The exhibit will be on display through June 2018. Visit https://new.artsmia.org for more information.
Nadine Matthews welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.