In the summer of 2004 I was 14 years old, turning 15 – an age which is, to avoid all pretences, boring. The moody 13 year old problems were long behind me and the tumultuous dramas of a lovesick 16 year old were but a speck in the distance. I was pretty bored that summer between 14 and 15 with nothing and no one to mope, whine or pine about and this is perhaps how I let my mother coerce me into forfeiting the beach and visiting a local museum. Back then we were living in Singapore and spending our summers in Charleston, South Carolina and the sheer joy of being back in America (Twinkies and Taco Bell!) was enough of a holiday for my family – we didn’t need to do Disneyland, we didn’t need to see the Washington memorial. Thus the implication of spending some of my precious American holiday time in a museum seemed rather unheard of, but being the bored 14 year old I was, I acquiesced.
My mother took me to the Gibbes Museum in downtown Charleston which was exhibiting an artist she thought I might be interested in – never underestimate your mother’s ability to know you better than you know yourself. This artist was called Jonathan Green and his paintings left me awestruck. They were like nothing I had ever seen before. Big, bold use of colour – the boldest I had ever seen – spread across canvases lining the room. This was one of Green’s first exhibitions and I felt sorry for people that had never seen his work before – I felt sorry for myself! Seven years on I have still not found an artist whose art I like more than Jonathan Green’s. I imagine it must be a similar feeling to getting married: gratitude and relief that you have finally found the perfect fit.
Jonathan Green comes from a small part of South Carolina which is still imbued with the historic Gullah culture which, more than any other black culture in America, strives to retain its African heritage – through language, song, and – with the help of Green – art. The exhibition I saw that summer in Charleston was called the ‘Gullah Series’ and it depicted the daily activities of members of the American Gullah community, such as fishing or farming. This may seem mundane and quotidian, but Green makes sure to depict how his subjects not only work hard but play hard; so many of his canvases are filled with bright festive scenes of girls getting ready for parties or couples dancing in colourful party halls. All the women wear flowing, larger than life dresses, even when just hanging up the laundry. The paintings are always dappled in sunlight or rippling blue oceans created with large, unashamed Monet-brush strokes. In a way, the pictures appear almost child-like; this is not to say that Green is unskilled or amateur in his painting, but rather the images depict simplicity and innocence – everyone is just having a good time. Green stated that, though he may try, he can’t ‘save a whole culture’, but the jubilant way he portrays the Gullah society suggests that they are not too worried about being saved.
What is most beautiful about Green’s paintings is the way he deals with the race and skin colour of his African-American subjects. Green is proud of his Gullah upbringing in South Carolina and this is reflected in the faceless figures of his work – the Gullah men and women have been created using pitch black paint, which not only provides a beautiful contrast against the blood red, lime green and fiery orange of their clothes, but also tells the viewer how Green feels about his black heritage in the most obvious sense; their skin is literally black, and why shouldn’t it be?
I often wonder if my love of Jonathan Green’s paintings had more to do with my location at the time rather than the images I saw in front of me. In his 2004 ‘Gullah Series’, Green is putting the emphasis on home and love and belonging. My family was living in Singapore at the time that we took these yearly American vacations, but we live in America now. After a 24 hour flight when we first moved to California, an embarrassingly large amount of suitcases to keep track of, and the always miserable line at LAX immigration, the customs officer loudly stamped the final passport, handed it back to us, and smiled, ‘Welcome home’. This is perhaps why, seven years ago, enjoying a finite summer in America, I stared at those Green paintings and was drawn to them: the elusiveness of “home” was reflected in front of me and I had only a short time to wait until I was finally at home living in America too.
Photography – Susie Burns