New York

Beverly Buchanan: Ruins and Rituals at the Brooklyn Museum

A comprehensive and long overdue exhibition of Beverly Buchanan’s work kicks off A Year of Yes: Reimagining Feminism at the Brooklyn Museum—a yearlong program of ten exhibitions celebrating the first decade of the museum’s Elizabeth Sackler Feminist Art Center. In a time when voices of misogyny and white supremacy are gaining renewed validation in national political discourse, exploring assumptions around feminism and what feminist art can be is more vital than ever. Buchanan’s work highlights unmarked and under-recognized histories of African American life in the rural South. Her practice is redemptive and recuperative at its core—each piece a poignant gesture standing in resistance to the currents of history-writing that prioritize white male voices. Beverly Buchanan—Ruins and Rituals is a rewarding exhibition to see, for in addition to giving a much-undersung artist her due, it also reminds us that expanding access to the national historical narrative is a deeply feminist gesture.

Beverly Buchanan. <em>Untitled (Double Portrait of Artist with Frustula Sculpture)</em>, n.d.; black and white photograph with original paint marks; 8.5 x 11 in. ©Estate of Beverly Buchanan. Courtesy of Jane Bridges and the Brooklyn Museum.

Beverly Buchanan. Untitled (Double Portrait of Artist with Frustula Sculpture), n.d.; black and white photograph with original paint marks; 8.5 x 11 in. ©Estate of Beverly Buchanan. Courtesy of Jane Bridges and the Brooklyn Museum.

Born in Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina, Buchanan spent a lot of her upbringing on the campus of South Carolina State University, where her great-uncle was the dean of the School of Architecture. She went on to earn master’s degrees in both parasitology and public health from Columbia University before working as a public health educator in New Jersey. While in New York, she studied with the painter Norman Lewis at the Art Students League, and found a mentor in Romare Bearden. Buchanan was a visible and known figure in New York’s art scene throughout the ’70s and ’80s until she felt drawn back to the South and resettled in Macon, Georgia.

Her practice traverses sculpture, earthworks, photography, and drawing. While certain bodies of work bear formal and conceptual connections to Post-Minimalism and Land Art, others share more in common with outsider and vernacular art that have drawn inspiration from Buchanan’s native rural South. Despite the range and resistance to classification, a clear through line is the artist’s commitment to testimony: her need to record, mark, and memorialize sites in the US landscape that are embedded with suppressed or little acknowledged legacies of racism, violence, and neglect. Ruins and Rituals reminds us of the thousands of stories that remain untold in our national consciousness—some lost forever.

Beverly Buchanan. Untitled Slab Works 1, circa 1978-1980; black and white photograph of cast concrete sculptures with acrylic paint in artist studio; 8.5 x 11 in. ©Estate of Beverly Buchanan. Courtesy of Jane Bridges and the Brooklyn Museum.

Beverly Buchanan. Untitled Slab Works 1, circa 1978-1980; black and white photograph of cast concrete sculptures with acrylic paint in artist studio; 8.5 x 11 in. ©Estate of Beverly Buchanan. Courtesy of Jane Bridges and the Brooklyn Museum.

While still in New York and New Jersey, Buchanan began casting sculptures she called Frustula, meaning fragments. They were largely inspired by the detritus of destroyed buildings she encountered in her work in public health. These “ruins” were minimalist gestures in their early stages—formal material experiments resembling blocks or slabs. It wasn’t until Buchanan returned to Georgia that she took this studio practice of casting concrete out into the landscape, placing the works as markers on sites where she learned of pivotal moments of local history.

One-third of the Brooklyn Museum exhibition is devoted to these Frustula sculptures and includes video documentation of their installation in specific locations. A trio of stones, titled Marsh Ruins (1981), is placed near St. Simons Island in Georgia, where a group of Igbo people who were sold into slavery collectively drowned themselves in 1803. Buchanan included an outer layer of tabby (a cement made of lime, gravel, and oyster shells) in each stone, a material that had been used to build plantations in the region. Nearby, a historical marker sits on the site where the confederate soldier Sidney Lanier wrote his famous Reconstruction era poem “The Marshes of Glynn.” Another Frustula work, titled Ruins and Rituals (1979), is composed partially of concrete from a nearby railroad bridge, and is placed in view of the relocated and restored Kingfisher Cabin, the site where Harry Stillwell Edwards wrote his 1919 pro-slavery novel Eneas Africanus. Both Marsh Ruins and Ruins and Rituals incorporate local materials tied to the historical suppression of Black life, while sitting in contrast to the official markings and historical preservations that keep Lanier and Edwards’s legacies permanently visible. Buchanan’s works will age, erode, and integrate into the landscape, reminding us how much these sites have absorbed forever, and how the recovery of these stories is a project without end.

Beverly Buchanan. <i>Low Country House</i>, n.d.; wood, 17.75 x 16.75 x 13.25 in. ©Estate of Beverly Buchanan. Courtesy of Jane Bridges and the Brooklyn Museum. Photo: Adam Reich.

Beverly Buchanan. Low Country House, n.d.; wood, 17.75 x 16.75 x 13.25 in. ©Estate of Beverly Buchanan. Courtesy of Jane Bridges and the Brooklyn Museum. Photo: Adam Reich.

Buchanan is best known for her shack sculptures, which make up another third of the exhibition: small scale constructions inspired by a range of architecture the artist researched and encountered during her travels through rural Southern towns. Many are named for the traditional forms they represent—low country house and shotgun house, for instance. Others are given the names of specific people and paired with texts referred to as “legends”—amalgams of different stories inspired by a range of individuals who lived in shacks just like these. Each sculpture is carefully crafted and specific, yet stand as a monument to a way of life inhabited by many. In the performance Out of Control (1991), Buchanan lit a shack on fire and left it for her friends to extinguish. The weight of this single gesture is hard to hold: within it are a thousand stories of violence by fire committed against Black communities. Buchanan’s work offers a way to begin to comprehend the enormity of that loss, and to question if reconciliation with it will ever be possible.

Beverly Buchanan—Ruins and Rituals, installation view. Photo: Jonathan Dorado.

Beverly Buchanan—Ruins and Rituals, installation view. Photo: Jonathan Dorado.

The final section of Ruins and Rituals is devoted to the artist’s archive. Research was clearly integral to the artist’s process: Copious polaroids of herself, postcards, journal entries, and photo documentation of the sites, structures, and people she met are laid out in cases for careful inspection. This is a bevy of rich material, and underlines what Buchanan understood so well in her life’s work: the need to bear witness to what has been lost, and the inability to learn from what we choose not to remember.

Beverly Buchanan—Ruins and Rituals will be on view at the Brooklyn Museum through March 5, 2017.

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