Celebrating Gullah Culture in Beaufort South Carolina

06 12, 2016

Published in Metro News

The Gullah are the descendants of the denizens of the rice coast regions of Western Africa who were stripped of their freedom, herded onto slave ships, and imported as chattel to the Lowcountry of South Carolina and Georgia. They were liberated the first year of the Civil War following the battle of Port Royal and remained in the Beaufort area where decades of rural isolation preserved their African-American Gullah culture.

Whispers of the past can be heard today staring out at the vast salt marshes from the waterfront or walking down the town’s shady residential streets through a towering and twisted canopy of live oaks festooned with Spanish moss that rustles in the breeze.

The porch ceilings of beautiful antebellum homes tend to be painted a soft, pale “haint blue,” a stylistic flourish which arose from Gullah ghostbusting tradition. The watery color is believed to ward off “haints” or evil spirits. According to Gullah superstition, lost souls up to no good can’t cross water. A vibrant art scene with a gaggle of galleries dotting the downtown core also serves as a bridge from the present to the past.

“I had two types of grandmothers. I had that really sweet grandmother who would teach me how to bake cakes. Then I had that Grandmother who would teach me how to go get a switch,” says Sonja Griffins Evans, an acclaimed Gullah culture artist while showing us “My Purpose” a work depicting a young girl with her hands clasped and her guardian behind her in a matching white dress. “When I first painted it I thought this is Nana’s baby.” I’m in the courtyard of the Beaufort Arsenal, a castle-like fortification constructed in 1799 and about to dip my brush and have at it in a painting class she’s teaching.

Evans shepherds our artistic process by urging her pupils to pick out a colour that we are attracted to that is personally meaningful and then blanketing our canvas with it as a backdrop. After selecting a dark shade of green and making a few muddy brushstrokes she glances at my work in progress and intuits corrently that I’m “a bit of anature guy.” She adds that she envisions a red roofed structure in my painting’s future, another prescient forecast. Gullah paintings tend to employ bright, vibrant colors in their depictions of post-emancipation African-American community life. Indigo dyed quilts and sweetgrass basketry where dried saw palmetto leaves often with bulrush and pine needles interwoven are also hallmarks of Gullah art.

Evans work can be found at Scout Southern Market (709 Bay Street), a trendy home décor shop where you can sip on a mint mojito sweet tea floats while browsing hand hammered copper pitchers, porch bed swings, and spoon laden chandeliers. For a wide variety of Gullah, African, and low country folk art LyBensons Gallery and Studio (211 Charles)which has everything from Verdite Stone sculptures to wood burnings and a selection of works depicting Robert Smalls, a slave-turned-ship captain and eventually five-term congressman.

A Gullah Night on the Town
The first Friday in December rings in the Yuletide season on the South Carolina Sea Islands with a stirring rendition of the Gullah Kinfolk Christmas Wish at the University of South Carolina-Beaufort’s Performing Arts Center. Connect with Gullah culture through a dazzling, foot stomping musical bringing alive the excitement of December of 1860, the last Christmas holiday before the Civil War.
Coinciding with the stirring theatrical performance is the taste of Gullah soulfood buffet where local caterers serve up collards, candied yams, gumbo, red rice and other rib-sticking favourites as well as an artist showcase and market.

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