Museum exhibit celebrates African Americans ties to the land

A piece called "Williams Muscadine Vinyard" along with other ceramic works by artist Syd Carpenter in her exhibiton More Places of Our Own" on display at the African American Musuem. ( RON TARVER / Staff Photographer ) July 12 2014

Shirley Dumas and Ruby Little, sisters in their seventies, circled the exhibit at the African American Museum in Philadelphia, recognizing symbols of their youth.

The cows, seeds, dirt roads, and sheds - intertwined and rendered in graphite and clay - triggered memories of their North Carolina childhood on the family farm.

"We used to grow tobacco, cotton, sweet potatoes - everything," said Dumas, 73, of Mt. Gilead, N.C. "It shows you how things were a long time ago."

Dumas and her sister, visiting Philadelphia for a family reunion, chatted with artist Syd Carpenter, whose 15-piece exhibit, "More Places of Our Own," aims to memorialize families like those of the sisters who worked the land, often anonymously.

Carpenter led a tour of her work Saturday as part of an exhibition at the museum spotlighting African American farmers, food traditions and the relationship of African Americans to the land.

The exhibit includes the photographs by former Newsweek photographer John Francis Ficara, who spent four years (1999-2002) chronicling the lives of black farmers. A documentary, "Homecoming . . . Sometimes I am Haunted by Memories of Red Dirt and Clay," is also a part of the exhibit. The 1999 film, by Charlene Gilbert, a professor at the University of Toledo, explores the Gilbert family's farming past.

The exhibit will close Aug. 17 with a "Heritage Dinner" event featuring African American culinary traditions.

Carpenter, a professor at Swarthmore College, has made the issue of African American farms and gardens a central theme of her work.

Through her sculpture, the Philadelphia artist captures the history and threatened future of blacks in farming, whose numbers have declined precipitously because of discrimination, the Great Migration and younger generations deciding not to work the land.

Carpenter's interest was sparked seven years ago when she learned that her grandmother was a renowned gardener in her hometown of Pittsburgh.

That discovery helped illuminate Carpenter's intense commitment to transforming her garden into a flowering sanctuary. It was an attribute that ran in the family.

Since then, Carpenter has researched the history of blacks in farming and gardening, a process that began to infuse her art. In 2012, she traveled to interview farmers throughout the South. She created sculptures that reflected their lives and named the artworks after them.

On Saturday, Carpenter told the group of 30 who listened as she explained the story behind each work, that she planned to continue the effort in the years to come.

"This has changed my life . . . ," Carpenter said. "It acknowledges something I feel strongly about and translates it into objects that mean something."