Reflections on the work of the late, Georgia-based artist, Beverley Buchanan, and the role of place, memory, and histories within racial disparity in the U.S.
Artworks traditionally referred to as “site-specific” are designed for, and have an interrelationship with, a certain location. Taken out of their original context, site-specific works can lose their meaning or become something else entirely. There are many styles and examples of site-specific art, and as always, their impact often depends on their intent. Some, like James Turrell’s Twilight Epiphany (2012), are funded by institutions with the goal of being made completely knowable and accessible to the public, and inherently, celebrating the place where they reside. Others, like Beverly Buchanan’s Marsh Ruins (1981), are funded by the artist, perhaps with the goal of privately changing the landscape in order to protest or memorialize the place where they reside. I’ve been thinking a lot about the second (and private works of art in general), particularly as we live through a pandemic that’s being experienced so differently depending on exactly where you live, and as we continue living through racial injustice and acts of violence in the United States, asking us to ponder all acts of protest, both private and public.
Beverly Buchanan (1940-2015) was a black, woman artist who explored Southern vernacular architecture in her art. Buchanan, born in Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina, spent most of her childhood in South Carolina, and in 1969 received graduate degrees in parasitology and public health from Columbia University. Through the mentorship of Norman Lewis and Romare Bearden, and against familial, community and societal pressure, she decided to give up her public health career and dedicate her life to art. After a decade in New York and New Jersey, she moved to Georgia, where she lived and worked in Macon and Athens.
Buchanan’s work was primarily informed by the histories (and historical amnesia) of these various locations, and explored the relationship between memory—personal, historical, and geographical—and place. Buchanan engaged with art movements like land art, post-minimalism, and feminism, she linked political and social consciousness to the formal aesthetics of abstraction. Her body of work includes site-specific “earthworks” made in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, and during the late 1970s, she developed an approach to sculpture, called “frustula,” that placed the concise forms of Post-Minimalist art in dialogue with the realities of urban decay and social displacement.
Along with Marsh Ruins, we hope to celebrate and be changed by a few powerful, haunting and personal site-specific pieces by Beverly Buchanan:
Marsh Ruins (Sea Islands, GA), 1981
A photograph of Beverly Buchanan installing and staining the concrete and tabby in Marshes of Glynn, Brunswick, GA. (Original photograph in the collection of Museum of Arts and Sciences, Macon, GA) © Beverly Buchanan and MAS. from Rhizome.
In 1981 Buchanan created and installed “Marsh Ruins” in the Sea Islands of Georgia— an area named after and commemorating poems written by a confederate soldier’s idealized vision of the south. Before “Marsh Ruins,” what had not also been marked was the story of over 70 Igbo people (from present-day Nigeria) choosing death by mass-suicide into the water over enslavement in the early 1800s. Buchanan’s frustula structures, acting here as gravestones slowly becoming part of the land itself, stand today not only as a nonverbal protest to the memorialization the antebellum south, but in honor of those who died and those with lived experiences that, even when articulated, are not always heard.
“Marsh Ruins” is primarily made of cast concrete and tabby, which is a combination material consisting of limestone, crushed shells, and concrete that is often used in 18th and 19th century architecture in Georgia, including plantations.
Untitled (Church on Fire), 1995–96
[via @essexstreetgallery on Instagram; #BeverlyBuchanan]
Artist’s shirt, acrylic paint
Collection of Charlotte McMullan
Buchanan made “Untitled (Church on Fire)” in response to the burnings of 145 places of worship—primarily black Southern Baptist churches—that took place across the United States from 1995 to 1996. Painting on a plaid work shirt that she frequently wore in her studio, she depicted a grid of white crosses and blue stars on a red field—a design that evokes both a graveyard and the American flag. This series of church burnings led to the passing of the Church Arson Prevention Act in 1996.
When put up for sale by her gallery, she urged a friend who lived in Georgia to purchase the piece. The friend obliged and kept the work in their closet. Being present in the state of Georgia gave the work its meaning, and without home or place, it would lose its power.
Medicine Woman / Evelyn / The Doctor, 1992
[Taken by __crate]
Standing among art-making materials such as stones and jars, and composed of empty pill bottles, “Medicine Woman / Evelyn / The Doctor” spans the spectrum of private to public. A portrait of the artist as a medical professional, the sculpture also evokes an imagined healer for Buchanan, who experienced chronic illness for much of her life and was routinely on a quest to find a doctor she felt comfortable with.
The work is reminiscent of bottle trees found across the American South, which were often created by affixing blue Milk of Magnesia bottles to barren branches. Many people believe that the tradition of placing bottles on tree branches to trap evil spirits originated in Central Africa in the ninth century.
Buchanan lived with this work in her home in Athens, Georgia, for the greater part of a decade.
(1) Brooklyn Museum