Black History Month is a time for stories of triumph over injustice, as well as for remembrance. In Remains, a solo show by Adebunmi Gbadebo at Claire Oliver Gallery in Harlem, collective memory and generational trauma take on new depths. Among the rich and varied mixed media works on view, it is the charred pottery, sprouting with human hair, that blurs the line between the Black physical form and its objectification, chillingly evoking a period of enslavement and dehumanization.
Gbadebo, born in 1992, literally dug deep into the land where her ancestors suffered and are buried, True Blue plantation in Fort Motte, South Carolina, named for the indigo that was harvested on the property. Today, it is managed by her cousin Jackie Whitmore, who, along with others, maintains the grounds for hunting.
The artist incorporates the soil from the earth on the property into her ceramics, manipulating it into hard vessels using what the gallery refers to as a “traditional West African coil technique”. In addition to human hair, grains of rice from the property sprout in abstracted patterns, telling stories beyond words or co-opted histories.
The power behind these works is historic, but inevitably remains tied to the ongoing struggles of Black America. The Civil Rights Movement, Black Lives Matter, and ongoing discussion of injustice continue to be at the forefront of American discourse, and works like Gbadebo’s open the viewer to reverence as much as discussion.
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For this particular artist, abstraction provides a release.
“Abstraction allows me to acknowledge the histories that are embedded within my process and materials,” Gbadebo explained to Jennifer Earthman for Zeit Contemporary. “The blue dye, the cotton, the black hair, the indigo all carry the memory of the histories I depict in my work and through my process my body becomes a surrogate to that memory.”
She later continued, rooting her work in contemporary context.
“What I do know about this current moment is that there is a proliferation of Black representation —Black joy, Black violence, Black thought, Black trauma etc. marketed on our social media timelines, magazine covers, tv screens, and daily life. I think I belong to the groups of artists who are moving to abstraction to dissolve, process, or expand these representations and express something authentic.”
Along with ceramic works, Gbadebo has developed a series of blue paintings, A Dilemma of Inheritance, inspired by the indigo, and even acquired a wooden pew from the Old Jerusalem Church built by her ancestors on the plantation and brought it to the Harlem gallery, along with fragments of wood, iron, and railing from the McCord House her ancestors built for the plantation owners. Outside the church are the graves of those who created the plantation’s wealth and macabre history. They are intended to underscore the significance of what the press release calls “stolen labor”—a wealth of riches and resources taken from their toils and tolls.
The artist has been focused on creating a “Black archive” predominately through hair since her student years at the School of Visual Arts. In her interview with Earthman, she explained that the catalyst was a discussion of Édouard Manet’s Olympia (1865), in which, “The professor reflexively dismissed the ‘maid’– the other human and second largest form in the painting,” she said. “He described the black cat and the draped curtains in the image with more zest than the Black woman, Laure.”
Because Gbadebo was so deeply upset by the interaction with the SVA professor, it allowed her to challenge the idea of Black bodily representation in art, and, more specifically its erasure. Hair became the way to literally interweave Black DNA into art history, to avoid people ever being forgotten again.
The Earthman interview addresses how African Americans were not included in federal census records until 1870, but Gbadebo’s art evokes the ancient truths of diaspora and enslavement. Early work, History Paper, turned human hair into paper, and now in Remains, hair is a part of the ceramic permanence of a fire-cast object
The Claire Oliver Gallery website notes that hair “carries unique DNA chromosomes that remain for between 1,000 and 10,000 years,” thus, the hair is a map of human history on a continuum. Although many of the hair samples Gbadebo takes are from people she currently knows, the rich heritage of the past is omnipresent.
In addition to the intimate show at Claire Oliver gallery on view until March 11, Gbadebo’s work was also at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, SC until February 5th. She was a visiting artist at Rutgers University in 2022, and has works in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, South Carolina State Museum, and the Newark Museum of Art amongst others.
Perhaps directly because of Gbadebo’s incredible talent, this show is about honoring heritage to a selfless degree. A portion of all exhibition proceeds will go to preserve and maintain the plantation, and she thanks her ancestors, “for making a way.”
Claire Oliver Gallery is located at 2288 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, New York, NY 10030.