On ViewClaire Oliver Gallery
January 13–March 11, 2023
The ten works on view in Remains at Harlem’s Claire Oliver Gallery prove that Adebunmi Gbadebo is an extraordinary artist, capable of manipulating, with rare intelligence, carefully-selected materials that align closely with her works’ affective power. While New York viewers may know Gbadebo’s blue-stained paper sheets from a group exhibition at False Flag and a solo show at Claire Oliver (both 2020), or may have seen her paired ceramic vessels in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina, this is the first presentation to showcase the clarity of her vision across media. The result is a remarkable body of work in paper, clay, and sound unburdened by the narrow concerns of entrenched tradition that soars in its sensitive attention to the marriage of materiality and concept. Throughout, the point of entry is the history of Gbadebo’s enslaved ancestors on the Lang Syne and True Blue Plantations in South Carolina.
On the gallery’s first floor, five tall paper sheets offer a history of indigo production on farms in West Africa and plantations in the American south—a laborious, toxic, and life-consuming process. Peeking around fields of blue dye soaked into the scabby surfaces of collaged paper in Production 2 (2020) we find a diagram of an indigo-making machine, a map of West Africa, and a group portrait of women posing in long-sleeved dresses, each with folded arms or hands on hips. Just above, an excerpted text highlighted with a bright blue border explains that indigo production was among the trades that skilled Africans brought with them on slave ships to American plantations. Juxtaposing the transfer of African skill and intellect across the Atlantic with documentation specific to Gbadebo’s ancestors widens the scope of her paper sheets, which have previously focused exclusively on True Blue Plantation. The artist culled these silkscreened and Riso-printed sources from her own research and that of her cousin Jackie Whitmore, whose lifelong efforts to recuperate family history have deeply guided the artist’s own. Descended from the prominent Ravenel family of Charleston through her mother Brenda Ravenell, Gbadebo included a portrait of her great uncle William, mustached and looming large before a field of cotton, in Production 2. Each Production sheet contains human hair, which Gbadebo mixes along with cotton fibers onto a screen when making her paper; in each work she also nestled a ball of cotton with seeds still inside. In imagery and process, Gbadebo reclaims her family’s history by storytelling from the perspective of Black experience. What is truth after all, Gbadebo asks, on a plantation called True Blue?
Alongside the Production series in the first-floor gallery Gbadebo presents wooden artifacts: two pews (ca. 1890) from Jerusalem Church on True Blue Plantation crafted by her emancipated forebears, and a set of balcony balusters (1849), mostly bereft of their paint, taken from McCord House, built for Lang Syne’s owners on the University of South Carolina campus. These balusters were made by Gbadebo’s enslaved relatives, two of whose names—carpenters John Spann and Anderson Keitt—the family has recovered. The inclusion of history-laden objects not of her own making affirms the conceptualism of Gbadebo’s practice while substituting the oft-detached intellectualism of conceptual art with the warm pulse of embodied history and the maternal instinct to safeguard it. In this, Gbadebo’s work seems closer to the intimacy of Adrian Piper’s jars of hair and nail clippings than Charles Gaines’s coolly procedural grids of pecan trees photographed at a plantation near his South Carolina hometown. In giving ample space to her ancestors’ work Gbadebo stages both an act of care and a critique of the intuition of slavery. She thus works in the tradition of Fred Wilson, whose signature gesture of juxtaposing objects in unconventional ways unveils the hidden racism undergirding many museum displays. This comparison risks making Gbadebo’s presentation sound overly didactic, which it isn’t. It feels almost sacred. She has brought something powerful to life, something that lives through materiality but at the same time surpasses it.
A decisive turn in Gbadebo’s work came after a July 22, 2020 visit to South Carolina. During this trip, when much of the world was still in suspension and the artist was grieving for her recently deceased, she was especially attuned to True Blue’s soil as a carrier of trauma, joy, and the biological matter of her ancestors. Recognizing the potential of incorporating this soil into her art, she began to drive it back to her Newark studio in crates to turn it into workable clay. The vessels made from this clay, which range between the size of a volleyball and the size of a backpack, are unglazed, rich cinnamon brown in color, and covered in black marbling left by carbon present during pit firing in the ground. Gbadebo presents them upstairs, on a single row of plinths. Several pots feature Black hair emerging through cracks that appeared during firing, making their surfaces both continuous and discontinuous. The multi-hued and slip-adorned locs bursting from Jane/Mother of J. H. Lee / Died Feb 15, 1909 / Age 85 yrs / Gone to Fairer Land / of Pleasure & Love / To Join the Bright Band of Angels Above (2021) are exemplary in this regard, suggestive of growth that breaches containment. Other vessels, like Zack Sipe, Born 1901 Died Oct 5 1991 and safe from sorrow (2022), hold Carolina Gold Rice or act as a support for it, as in In Memory of K Smalls died 19?? HFS (2021), which features individual rice grains protruding from its surface. (Carolina Gold rice was once grown on True Blue Plantation; today Gbadebo purchases it from another plantation nearby.) In an act of archival preservation, Gbadebo takes as titles grave markers’ text recorded when visiting True Blue Cemetery.
The pots are bathed in the ceremonial song and rustle of movement that we hear in the single sound work in the show, July 22, 2020 / Sit Down Servant (2022). It is, by turns, haunting and exalted. We hear voices singing in unison during a contemporary funeral at Lang Syne; the sandy scrape of Gbadebo digging up soil; her quick breath while trespassing onto private property to access Jerusalem Church. Just as the soil beneath our feet carries within it things we cannot see—violence, resilience, and the somatic trace of those who came before—July 22, 2020 / Sit Down Servant operates through a mode of listening that moves beyond what is strictly sensible to the ear. Beneath its audible register we sense histories of subjection, extraction, fear. Gbadebo mentioned to me in conversation that she has been inspired by Vanessa Agard-Jones’s insight in the essay “What the Sands Remember” that land is a repository for memory, since ten percent of a soil sample is made up of the events that took place on that site. In Gbadebo’s hands, that soil has agency as she builds up each pot in coils. Their eventual shape is not preconceived when she sets out to work. This is making through a tacit intergenerational intelligence that resides somewhere in the kinetic interface between mind, body, tools, and materials, a knowledge that surpasses the visual arrest of the schematic diagram or the regulation of verbal communication. Remains will count among the most significant gallery exhibitions of the year. The ceramic vessels mark a new level of achievement in Gbadebo’s career, their materiality wholly commensurate with her larger project of storytelling by connecting entities and forces that remain from the past with those she forges anew.