Human history isn’t confined to documents and records, but embedded in the organic materials that we consume, produce, and cast away throughout our lifespans. In Adebunmi Gbadebo’s latest solo show, Remains at Claire Oliver Gallery, the artist presents remarkably sensitive works that incorporate Black hair, Carolina gold rice, indigo dye, and soil collected from her enslaved ancestors’ grave sites on the True Blue indigo and rice plantation in South Carolina.
On the gallery’s first floor, Gbadebo presents five enormous handmade rice paper sheets from her Production (2022) series along the left wall. At seven feet tall each, the ragged sheets are made up of multiple layers of indigo-dyed pulp and reproduced documents ranging from the indigo dye production process to photographs of her blood relatives. The surfaces of each sheet are embedded with both masses and individual strands of Black hair that puncture through the layers of blue and white, immortalizing the genetic legacy derived from the forced migration of African people.
In an interview with Hyperallergic, the artist recalled her first visits to the True Blue plantation and the ancestral burial site where she went to gather the soil.
“I feel safe in the cemetery, like I can’t be touched or harmed,” Gbadebo recounted. “But the second I set foot outside of the cemetery and I’m, you know, in the space that was formally True Blue plantation, there’s an immediate feeling of danger and threat.”
This lingering feeling of endangerment and anxiety can be attributed to a biological phenomenon known as “epigenetics,” or the study of how environmental factors can impact gene expression without actually altering the gene sequence. It’s no secret that trauma is internalized in the body and subsequently passed down intergenerationally, but to experience its intrinsic manifestation in the flesh inexplicably illuminates the connection to one’s lineage. This is especially prominent in Gbadebo’s use of human hair, which carries DNA chromosomes that remain for between 1,000 and 10,000 years, according to the gallery.
On the second floor, Gbadebo presents a series of pit-fired clay vessels filled or studded with Carolina gold rice grains or samples of Black hair, titled with text from headstones and grave markers in the True Blue cemetery. Gbadebo made the clay using the soil she collected from the cemetery, but was initially paralyzed with freedom when it came down to actually sculpting it.
“And then it hit me that I could make anything,” she said. “And I guess in that reality it hit me that my ancestors had no choice or decision or autonomy.”
“This land that I now have in my hands and me being a descendant from this soil, the fact that I could shape it and form it and do whatever I want to, it is like the ultimate privilege,” Gbadebo continued. “I felt extreme gratitude for my ancestors and to have this privilege to shape this land.” Gbadebo employed a Nigerian coil pot technique and emulated the designs of West African funerary vessels as an act of veneration for the suffering of her enslaved ancestors and in honor of the culture they were stolen from before True Blue.
Stuffing the cavities and cracks of the hardened soil-clay with Black hair activates the physical remembrance of these enslaved laborers who were not just unceremoniously buried in naturally reclaimed graves, but intentionally disposed of, discounted, and forgotten through American history under the lens of white supremacy. The rice born from the hands of Gbadebo’s ancestors and land they were laid to rest in speaks to their forced labor and the commoditization of the Black body as the backbone of the American economy.
Gbadebo’s works are shown in conjunction with the handwork of her ancestors as well. Back on the first floor, a set of beat-up balcony balusters are mounted on the wall across from Production (2022). The balusters belonged to the McCord House, built by Gbadebo’s enslaved ancestors from the neighboring McCord family-owned Lang Syne plantation in 1849. She acquired the balusters from a contractor who was renovating the house, which is now owned by incumbent South Carolina governor Henry McMaster as of 2016 and serves as student housing.
Two wooden church pews sit further back on the first floor, scuffed and scraped from years of wear and tear. Gbadebo told Hyperallergic that the pews were from the Old Jerusalem Church that her ancestors built on the True Blue plantation in 1890 after emancipation to worship as free people. She received the two pews as a gift from her cousin, Benny Haynes, who cares for the property. According to Gbadebo, the descendants of the True Blue plantation owners have converted the Old Jerusalem Church into a hunt club.
The quiet but poignant juxtaposition of objects built out of force alongside those built out of devotion is a continued memorialization of Gbadebo’s ancestors beyond their physicality. In this exhibition, Gbadebo gracefully reclaims her family’s history through intergenerational channels of labor and care that topple the delicate foundations of white supremacy. Remains is on view at Claire Oliver Gallery through March 11.