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WASHINGTON, DC — On a Saturday earlier this month, Sheldon Scott performed “Precious in Da Wadah, A Portrait of the Geechee” in the Kogod Courtyard and Great Hall of the National Portrait Gallery. The Gallery is housed in the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, a Greek Revival behemoth which began its life in 1836 as the United States Patent Office. While it does host the requisite ongoing exhibition of presidential portraits and its walls are sometimes dominated by portraits of famous Americans, the museum also makes an effort to present more challenging work, often in the form of performance. It commissioned Scott’s work as part of Identify, a performance series created “to acknowledge those individuals who are missing from the permanent collection.”
The program’s stated mission is a refreshingly frank acknowledgement that, in an institution devoted to telling the “multifaceted story of America,” wide swaths of the American experience still go unrepresented. Beyond bringing underrepresented artists into the institution, Identify challenges our expectations of portraiture and how it can be used to understand history. The performances selected for the series, including “Precious in Da Wadah, A Portrait of the Geechee,” emphasize that our history is built from the lives of billions of mostly anonymous human beings, rather than just from the actions of the select individuals whose likenesses can be found hanging on the museum’s walls.
It is appropriate, then, that “Precious in Da Wadah” seemed carefully choreographed to both work with and challenge the architecture of the building within which it took place. Now based in Washington, DC, Scott was born and grew up in Pawley’s Island, a barrier island in South Carolina’s coastal low country. Pawley’s Island lies at the heart of Geechee/Gullah culture, which traces its roots to the agricultural, linguistic, culinary, and cultural traditions brought to the area from West Africa by enslaved people and developed over hundreds of years by their descendants. “Precious in Da Wadah, A Portrait of the Geechee” focused specifically on the role of enslaved Africans in the development of rice production in this part of the American South. The massive wealth that owners accrued from rice-producing plantations in the region was not just built off of the exploitation of the physical labor of enslaved people — it was built on their technological and agricultural knowledge, which they brought with them from the rice-producing regions of West Africa.
Ritualistic and solemn, the performance’s physical choreography consisted of restrained movements, symbolic referents for both the physical labor of rice production and the specific agricultural techniques introduced to coastal South Carolina by Scott’s ancestors. At the beginning of the performance, a series of female performers entered the building’s soaring Kogod Courtyard carrying straw baskets filled with small plants. Removing the plants from the baskets one by one, Scott walked barefoot across the shallow rectangular water scrims that line one side of the courtyard, placing each plant by the water’s edge.
In the performance’s early moments, the work’s restraint seemed to belie the brutality and historical trauma of the history it asked the audience to consider. But, as the performance continued, its understated physical choreography, which provided a straightforward visual reference to the topic of the performance, was balanced by an expressive and complex soundscape that moved beyond literal interpretation. It surrounded the audience with a mournful vocal expression that became a physical presence in its own right. In the vast open atrium of the courtyard, voices of female performers filled the space, a testament to the power of sound to communicate across vast distances.
As the performance moved to the Great Hall, viewers struggled for visibility while moving into closer proximity with both the performers and one another. As the singing intensified, a cellist joined the vocalists. The artist, positioned in the middle of the room, hammered a tree branch into a straw basket perched on a larger piece of wood, creating an inescapable percussive beat. At the performance’s peak, it became, most significantly, an aural experience. The result was a soundtrack that immersed the viewers in a confrontation waged between the performers and the very architecture of the building itself. The singers’ wordless vocals emanated from deep within their bodies, reaching up into and permeating the building’s architecture. Scott’s driving percussion reverberated downwards towards the building’s foundation and outwards at the viewers.
The more straightforward representational approach of the performance’s visual and physical choreography acted as a scaffold for a soundscape that explored the possibility of sound and other non-representational expressions to offer some small means for memorializing the inarticulable trauma of the past.
Sheldon Scott’s “Precious in Da Wadah, A Portrait of the Geechee” took place November 5 in the Kogod Courtyard and Great Hall of the National Portrait Gallery (8th St NW & F St NW, Washington, DC).