How many magazine articles over the past few generations have begun with some version of “The South is a narrative culture” or “Southern art tells stories,” no matter how different the conclusions thereafter turn out to be?
Hearsay, at the Zuckerman Museum of Art through October 25, changes the terms of that fatigued dialogue about the South and storytelling.
It is an excellent, engaging show in which the imperfections actually reinforce the main points made by the eight independent exhibitions it encompasses. All find different ways to tell old and new southern stories. Most deal with historical currents that southerners of all persuasions have seldom analyzed closely, or even discussed in polite company. Just as with more traditional southern stories, some of the tales are more clearly told (or deliberately just implied) than others.
Far from merely moving the focus of attention to previously untold stories, the exhibition raises questions about how the stories ought to be told. Current approaches to conceptually based art are very much in evidence; in fact, they are to some degree the evidence itself. The ideas involved include the intrinsic uncertainty of interpretation and the notion that archives are more than piles of raw material for historians.
The very notion of presenting a “story” in an art museum establishes implicit ground rules: on the one hand, there has to be enough text to explain what story or type of story is being told; on the other, there has to be something to look at, even if that something is an arresting example of typography in a book or newspaper.
Indeed, the styles of type fonts and the invention of a new alphabet are at the heart of Cherokee Phoenix: The Birth and Revival of Cherokee-Language Printing in the Southeast. The Cherokee silversmith Sequoyah’s invention in 1821 of a writing system (a syllabary, not an alphabet) for spoken Cherokee made possible the creation of, among other things, a newspaper published between 1828 and 1834, when it was shut down at the height of the controversy over Cherokee removal to Oklahoma.
This is a huge swath of history to cover in a few words of wall text, even without bringing in the whole story of elegantly designed movable type, but the inclusion of a page from the 1499 Hypnerotomachia Polyphili, one of the legendarily well-designed books of the Renaissance, does exactly that. In no more than a handful of framed book and newspaper pages plus vitrines containing full-length books, curators Adam Doskey and Frank Brannon establish a context, present a succinct history and introduce a body of contemporary art by Cherokee artists who have used the current version of Sequoyah’s syllabary to comment acerbically on the deportation of the Cherokee Nation. Incorporating works from Kennesaw State University’s Bentley Rare Book Gallery, this is an exhibition poised prettily between art and archive.
Take Me With You presents an evocation of southern gay experience from a past generation that is so readily comprehensible as to be almost confrontational. A handmade sign reads, “Take me with you. I’m looking for a ride . . . I can not afford gas expenses, however, I’m young, good looking and always horny.” John Q (the collective of Joey Orr, Wesley Chenault and Andy Ditzler) took these words from the archives of Crawford Barton, a native of Resaca, Georgia, who filmed a road trip from Atlanta to San Francisco in the early days of gay liberation. Forty years later, John Q created a video of a parallel road trip from Atlanta to Resaca. The two visual documents are projected adjacent to one another.
The ensemble is an artwork, but with a documentary spin. The individual parts are aesthetically interesting (both use cinematic pacing and evocative footage of trains and a child blowing the fluff off a dandelion), but together with the explanatory wall text, they provide an electrifyingly immediate experience that is more than aesthetic.
The museum’s back gallery is an intriguing mix of documentation from other archives and exercises in viewer participation (or “relational art,” a term coined by Nicolas Bourriaud).
Carolyn Carr’s installation Still Life, which suggests a domestic interior, doesn’t burden us with Bourriaud, though it does belabor a point made decades earlier by Roland Barthes: the world is a slippery “text,” in which our reactions to what is in front of us become part of the reality of the thing itself.
The artist invites viewers to make up and write down stories based on her tableau, which contains colorful objects shaped like traditional jugs and vases placed on vintage furnishings, nondescript landscape photographs and Carr’s clay copies of traditional vessels.
Also participatory, George Long’s installation depicting the connections of family stories solicits written responses to be pinned to a board for all to read.
Robert Sherer creates a symbolic equivalent of small-town hearsay in Heirloom, a quilt (purportedly using blood from Marietta residents) featuring icons representing gossip and other bad habits alongside silhouettes of murdered child beauty queen JonBenét Ramsey and other famous Mariettans buried in local cemeteries.
Nikita Gale’s 1961 series consists of collages that alter the documentary evidence of mug shots of arrested civil rights workers, placing the collaged images next to family photos from the white South circa 1960 and rearranged cut-ups of the words of Georgia’s then lieutenant governor and a Ku Klux Klan official (writing to Malcolm X!). Her mix-and-match attempts to recreate a story she did not experience.
After these trips through the pitfalls and mysteries of interpretation, After Malcolm: Islam and the Black Freedom Struggle is a bracing return to solid documentation and solid objects. Working with the After Malcolm Digital Archive and Research Collective, Mansa Bilal King, Thomas LaPorte and Abbas Barzegar bring together books, clothing, magazines, newspapers, a brief video and explanatory texts that illuminate the transformation of a black nationalist movement into an encounter with traditional Islam after the example set by Malcolm X.
Clarkston Through Story and Memory, an exhibit about a once predominantly African American town that now hosts a large refugee community, sums up some of the goals of Hearsay. The major part of the exhibition is a PhotoVoice project coordinated by Birthe Reimers, comprising photographs and text by 13 residents of Clarkston. The exhibition also contains extracts from interviews with Donnie Roseberry, an African American resident of nearby Scottdale who is maintenance coordinator of the Clarkston Community Center, and Sami Luay, a newly resettled Iraqi refugee who is the center’s events and facility coordinator. The exhibit reveals aspects of the old and new South as they have seldom been known by anyone other than the most local of residents, and it does so by hearing stories and telling them anew.
And that’s the story of Hearsay. Multilayered and sometimes muddled, just like hearsay itself, it nevertheless reflects careful, complex, savvy reflection and bears the deft hand and concerns of curator Teresa Bramlette Reeves. This exhibition establishes the Zuckerman as one of the most innovative and attention-worthy museums in the greater metropolitan area.
The exhibition was curated by a team. In addition to Reeves, it includes Kirstie Tepper, associate curator at Zuckerman; Julia Brock, director of interpretation for the Museum of History and Holocaust Education, who also conducted the two interviews in the Clarkston project. It was facilitated by McKenzie Wren, executive director of the Clarkston Community Center.