Myth and Memory: Maurie McInnis Mines Material Culture

February 01, 2008
February 1, 2008 — Objects and ideas inform both history and contemporary thought and are the basis of the study of material culture. For Maurie McInnis, associate professor of American art and material culture and director of American studies, understanding the antebellum South in the 19th century encompasses understanding art and objects from the perspective of politics with a capital "P" as well as with a lower-case "p" — class politics, social structures and hierarchies.

McInnis spent the last four years applying that understanding to the creation of  "Landscape of Slavery: The Plantation in American Art," an exhibition on view Jan. 25 through April 20 at the University of Virginia Art Museum. The exhibition focuses on themes of race, slavery and the plantation from the 19th century to today.

McInnis, as consultant curator, was involved in all aspects of planning for the exhibit, working with Angela D. Mack, the curator of the traveling show that originated at the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, S.C.

"The exhibit is an exhibition about ideas rather than an art history exhibit that traces the development of an artist or a stylistic movement," McInnis said. The more than 80 artworks in the show portray the landscape of the cultural constructs of memory through the works of artists from the 19th century to today.

Race, slavery and the plantation do not have a fixed meaning through time, she explained. Working on the exhibit and the companion catalog, McInnis said she was struck by "how much cultural currency the word 'plantation' has."

The mythology of the South as a place of gentility and refinement is still held by many today, McInnis said. She cited as an example the naming of residential communities such as "Plantation Lake," which are prevalent from the Carolinas to Florida.

For African Americans, however, the meaning revolves around an imbalance of power. "The two are fundamentally different ideas of what 'plantation' means. The reality is that beauty and brutality lived beside each other," McInnis said.

The span of time the exhibit covers reflects these divergent views. "The artifacts explore widely varying ideas of what 'plantation' meant then and today."

The themes of protest, politics, nostalgia and identity run through the artists' works, which represent a wide variety of viewpoints within these topics. These same ideas are addressed in the catalog, which includes essays by six authors. McInnis's own essay focuses on the different uses, with regard to pro-slavery and abolition politics, to which George Washington's Mount Vernon was attached in the antebellum South.

To help clarify the ideas for both the exhibit and catalog, McInnis began by using her research to develop classes. That research — coupled with insight from students in her classes, "The 'Old South' in Myth and Memory" and "Arts and Cultures of the Slave South," which she co-teaches with associate professor of architectural history Louis Nelson — proved invaluable for defining questions about culture and American constructions about race.

"These courses helped me test initial ideas and define and redefine concepts," McInnis said. The classwork, which introduces undergraduate students to primary- and secondary-source research techniques, using primarily documents, now will benefit tremendously from the works in "Landscape of Slavery: The Plantation in American Art."

"With the 'Landscape of Slavery' show, we can now add objects," McInnis said. The power of experiencing actual objects as primary research sources to understand the past in an interdisciplinary way provides a huge advantage over seeing a PowerPoint image of the object, she said.

The exhibit includes works by a slave potter named Dave, who worked in Edgefield, S.C., the 1840s and 1850s. He decorated the large storage vessels he made with poetry and signed them. "His poetry was sometimes funny, spiritual, ironic or obliquely political," McInnis said. Both the poetry and his act of signing the pots are acts of political protest, since it was unlawful for slaves to read. "Dave is important. His work is an excellent example of an African-American artisan, of which the South was filled, but many are anonymous to us," McInnis added. His work was integral to the economic foundation of the South, and at the same time reveals much about slave life.

Contemporary artist Juan Logan also deals with issues of slavery. His "Foundations," a sculptural installation that is also included in the exhibit, is comprised of a series of iron brick-like structures symbolic of the part African-Americans played in building the South. "They not only provided the economic foundation, but also literally built it," McInnis said. The artist is engaged in an "ongoing conversation and dialogue with the past."

Both of these artists show that "what is at the heart of understanding the 19th century in antebellum South is the understanding of race and slavery," she said. Over time we construct "narratives to serve contemporary concerns and change surrounding these topics. Memories and ideas are not fixed, but changing."

McInnis will explore these shifting constructs of memory in her upcoming book, "Remembering the Revolution: Pictures, Politics and Memory." Her interest in the divergent ways in which the North and South remember the American Revolution, especially with the approach of the Civil War, grew directly out of her research for the exhibit. Iconic images and representations such as Emanuel Leutze's 1851 painting of "Washington Crossing the Delaware" have changed over time. That change helps us understand how contemporary cultural politics shaped the evolution of our key American myths, McInnis said.