When in June of 2015, political activist Bree Newsome scaled a flagpole on the grounds of the South Carolina Statehouse in order to remove the Confederate flag hanging from the top of it, she was enacting the latest in a series of battles over commemorative historical memorials in the American South. While statues and monuments honoring military and political leaders of the slaveholding Confederacy proliferated in the decades following the U.S. Civil War, it took nearly a century before official memorials acknowledged African American history in the South, including resistance to slavery, Jim Crow laws, and other forms of racial oppression. Even when sanctioned, these monuments have encountered opposition from civic groups, entrenched white political interests, and commissioning agencies themselves, to say nothing of the demands for aesthetic accessibility that renders public art and commemoration of all sorts mostly innocuous and readily assimilable.
During the 1980s while living in Georgia the artist Beverly Buchanan inserted into the southern landscape a number of sculptural works in order to honor the African American presence there. Born in 1940, Buchanan lived and worked in the New York area during the late 1960s and 1970s, achieving a modest amount of artistic success. In 1977, she decided that relocating to small-town Georgia—first Macon, then Athens—would allow her to leave crumbling New York and become more of a full-time artist. The result was that Buchanan mostly fell off the map of contemporary art. The Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, and specifically guest curators Jennifer Burris and Park McArthur, are helping to make her visible again with the exhibition Beverly Buchanan—Ruins and Rituals. (The artist participated in the early planning of the show prior to her death in 2015.)
Buchanan started out making abstract paintings and drawings with particular attention to the artwork’s material surface, but she soon became intrigued by the decaying buildings she saw in her travels around New York and New Jersey during her job as a health educator. Casting concrete around used milk cartons and bricks, Buchanan began to produce what she called “Frustula” (fragment): small, rough rectangular sculptures that she organized in clusters. Ruins and Rituals contains examples in the entrance to the exhibition as well as photographic documentation in another gallery filled primarily with archival material. At first, Buchanan’s sculptures were small enough to arrange on her kitchen table, but they soon became bigger, more ambitious, and proliferated into other series, such as Wall Fragments (1978), with its thin vertical squares wedged between two blocks, or Slab Works (ca. 1978–80), which further played with these shapes. Buchanan also added paint, not in order to decorate these works, but to highlight their rough exteriors.
Buchanan’s interest in the component parts of architecture remained with her for the rest of her life, while shifting to accommodate different environments, histories, and people. Ruins and Rituals displayed fourteen of Buchanan’s shacks (1986–2015): small-scale sculptural versions of dwellings she encountered African Americans occupying in the rural South. Assembled from repurposed wood, these dollhouse-sized shacks (and a small school) are painted in a full spectrum of colors, ranging from black to all white. Blending Buchanan’s interest in place and healing (her degrees were in health and medicine, not art), the shacks partially serve as talismans protecting their imagined inhabitants. Buchanan also set a few of them on fire in ritualistic ceremonies evoking the violence committed again black bodies and communities, some of which she had witnessed firsthand as a college student engaged in the civil rights movement in Greensboro, North Carolina, in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
The shacks, both Buchanan’s versions and their originals, are a tribute to a vernacular ingenuity crucial for the survival—and flourishing—of disenfranchised groups. The exhibition contains a striking set of photographs Buchanan took of an elderly woman named Mary Lou Furcron who built her house entirely by hand from thin logs, branches, and no nails—a work of art in its own right. In all of her work, whether casting concrete sculptures in her apartment in New Jersey or installing larger sculptures in the Georgia landscape, Buchanan used pigments and materials specific to her location. Where Buchanan’s earlier sculptures made in dialogue with the New York art world retain a somewhat anonymous quality, the shacks radiate a vivid individuality and uniqueness. At the same time, the rough-hewn surfaces, jagged construction, and thick brushstrokes of paint emphasize the material exigencies of these structures.
The ostensible heart of Ruins and Rituals is four memorials Buchanan made between 1979 and 1986 (from a total of seven). In these works, abstraction and commemoration combine in quiet yet forceful interventions into the geography and history of the American South. Burris and McArthur chose to represent these works with three video projections depicting the memorials from a variety of angles, at different times of day, and from a distance and quite close up. Ruins and Rituals (1979) is a cluster of found and cast-concrete blocks situated near the relocated cabin where pro-slavery novelist Harry Stillwell Edwards lived. Unity Stones (1983) places granite and dyed-black concrete stones in a circle in front of the Booker T. Washington Community Center in Macon. A public-art project situated outside a Metrorail station in Miami, Florida, Blue Station Stones (1986) is dyed blue, and its forms and alignment reference an African America graveyard nearby. Buchanan also spent time in Florida documenting shacks that had withstood the brute destructiveness of hurricanes.
Marsh Ruins (1981), for which Buchanan received a Guggenheim Fellowship to help produce, is perhaps her most ambitious work. She chose a spot near a historical marker recognizing Confederate poet Sidney Lanier’s “The Marshes of Glynn” (1878), an ode idealizing the southern agrarian landscape. Offshore is Saint Simons Island where a group of slaves chose suicide over servitude. Buchanan made three circa five-foot-high mounds from a combination of poured concrete and applied tabby (a mixture of lime, sand, oyster shells, water, and ash that was used for the foundations and walls of plantation buildings). A series of photocopies in the archival component of the exhibition documents the whole process. As with the other memorials, the sculptures provide no explanatory texts: they are mute and faceless figures of witness and defiance. And they are meant to become inseparable from the landscape, as the videos show in their attention to the erosion and weathering—especially of Marsh Ruins—these public installations are undergoing.
Buchanan made other commemorative interventions that have vanished into the landscape. She sometimes kept stones and small concrete pieces in her car and would unobtrusively place them near an overgrown African American cemetery in the South; on another occasion, when she found out that a company in New Jersey had finally started hiring Africa American workers, she left a few stones—but no sign—outside. Not every language is meant to be shared. Her belief in the power of the material object traces back to her early abstract work as well as to her art studies in New York with Romare Bearden and Norman Lewis, the latter one of the only African American members of the Abstract Expressionists. Both Bearden and Lewis fought for increased visibility and representation of non-white artists, a struggle Buchanan inherited along with an awareness of the major artistic practices of the early 1970s—Minimalism, Conceptualism, and Land art—which she adapted to her work and its roots in the history and geography of the American South with its profoundly racist legacies.
Despite this inheritance and the seeming severity of Buchanan’s sculptural works (some of which resemble gravestones or bear an eerie formal similarity to Neolithic tombs with their slats and stacking), she had a strong sense of humor. The archival gallery contains rows of vitrines filled with funny business cards, playful self-portraits, goofy nicknames, work descriptions, exhibition announcements, notebooks, and a drawing of an ideal lunch menu that includes a “bourbon float.” This gallery also contains a life-size female figure entitled Medicine Woman / Evelyn / The Doctor (1992) made with sticks and draped in empty and variously painted glass and plastic containers, many of them pill bottles. Buchanan kept the assemblage in her house—as much amulet as artwork. Nearby is a plaid red shirt Buchanan painted with dozens of small white crosses in response to a wave of African American church burnings in the mid-1990s. Although ensconced in a display case at the Brooklyn Museum and titled Untitled, Church on Fire (1995–96), at one time Buchanan regularly wore it while working.
Alan Gilbert is the author of two books of poetry, The Treatment of Monuments and Late in the Antenna Fields, as well as a collection of essays, articles, and reviews entitled Another Future: Poetry and Art in a Postmodern Twilight. He lives in New York.
Beverly Buchanan’s Ruins and Rituals was on view at the Brooklyn Museum, New York, October 21, 2016–March 5, 2017