Gullah’s Artwork: Descendants’ Tradition for Existence


Gullah’s Artwork: Descendants’ Tradition for Existence
Faridah Sabree
March 13, 2014
Janice Betian

Gullah’s Artwork: Descendants’ Tradition for Existence


Gullah’s Artwork: Descendants’ Tradition for Existence
Every family has a history, culture and their own traditions passed down from generation
to generation. Now imagine a family that survived from years of extreme labor and were never
paid for it. Imagine a family surviving from laws that prohibited the entire family from
education. Then reflect on that family surviving long enough to evolve their entire way of life
through isolation that is honored through various art forms for each generation. This family is
rich in history, culture and traditions known as the Gullah culture. The highest means of
preserving the Gullah culture are through the arts. With other cultures entering and mixing with
the Gullah culture, the artists who are not Gullah have been calling their artwork Gullah (Dr. O
and the Gullah community, personal communication, Feb. 2014) when it should be considered
folk artwork. In identifying the Gullah culture and its people, it can be explored to understand if
those who are not Gullah can or can not create Gullah artwork; thus preserving the authenticity
of the culture.
The Gullah culture is rooted in nearly 400 years of history that is primarily located on the
coastal regions of the south east of The United States of America. The rooted history has brought
so many changes in the USA. One of those changes, slavery, produced the Gullah culture after
mixing the southern culture with the African culture. The history of the Gullah culture stems
from the West Africans who were brought to the USA for slavery. West Africans were hunted,
captured, stolen, or sold to the slave traders. Along with the slave traders were "mulattoes", the
offspring between the blacks and the whites, and other slaves was used to facilitating the process
of slave trading. Their knowledge of translating languages, territories, and navigation aided in
the business of slavery for over 200 years. (Pollitzer, William S., pp. 36-37, 28)
Gullah’s Artwork: Descendants’ Tradition for Existence


The business of slavery was heavily influenced by the preferences of the slave owners.
Slaves from certain tribes, countries, and territories were targeted as the preferred slaves since
the 1530s. The preferred slaves would include those from Gambia, Gold Coast, Windward Coast,
and Angola. (Pollitzer, William S., pp 41) In the transition from slaves to freemen, a culture was
slowly being created as well as the name.
Instead of being called slaves, among other names, a term “Gola Negroes" was the best
way to describe them. This term is believed by some about the Angolans from Angola
(Campbell, Emory S.) or those from the Liberian tribe called “Gola” or “Gula.” Free descendants
are now being called Gullah. Another transition was the laws in the USA. Both slaves and newly
freemen had laws placed against them that prohibited them from having a proper American
education. (Pollitzer, William S., pp 65) The impact of these laws influenced the Gullah culture
and its people to educate and learn in other ways. These laws were enforced and designated in
the southeastern regions of the USA. The regions soon became the birthplace of the culture.
The Gullah Geechee Corridor manages the southeastern regions and territories of the
Gullah culture that can be found today. The Gullah Geechee Corridor is a non-profit
organization designated by an act of Congress in October 12, 2006, that focuses on preserving
and educating the historical territories of the Gullah culture, and its people. The states that
represent those territories, according to the organization, are North Carolina, South Carolina,
Georgia, and Florida. ( The primary places of the Gullah culture are
in South Carolina and Georgia’s coastal regions and islands. Those who lived near the Ogeechee
River in South Georgia were given the name “Geechee.” Even though these territories are
officially managed by the Gullah Geechee Corridor, the Gullah culture extends beyond those
Gullah’s Artwork: Descendants’ Tradition for Existence


The Gullah culture was able to spread to other states and into the inland areas because of
the need for labor during slavery. The other states include vast areas of Alabama to Texas.
(Pollitzer, William S., pp 65) Mike Allen, one of the founders of the Gullah Geechee Corridor,
stated that the official territory lines can and will be pushed back as they continue helping to
preserve the Gullah culture. Identifying the territories is one thing, but identifying the Gullah
people requires an individual review of the family tree.
The Gullah people are those who are descendants of Africans who survived after slavery
and lived, or came back to live, near the southeastern regions and islands. (National Park
Service) Newly freemen survived laws that were against them, isolation, and the lack of
economic resources left them to depend on the land and the union of the community to live. For
those who stayed in these areas were constantly connected to family and traditions. For those
who had the opportunity to leave were detached to the connection of constant family and
traditions. However, the detachment was not of genealogy. The genealogy of a Gullah person
would be able to trace his or her roots back to the people of the isolated areas and West Africa.
(National Park Service) The process of searching one's own genealogy is assisted through a
variety of resources. A Gullah person can trace his or her ancestry to the areas that are and are
not managed by the Gullah Geechee Corridor and the State Library of Archives. A Gullah
person can trace his or her ancestry to the enslaved West Africans by local resources for
genealogy like Low Country Africana and Afrigeneas. Even without the assistance of genealogy
research, a person can still be Gullah.
Descendants who were born in the evolved and designated areas of the coastal regions are
Gullah. Some of them were born, raised and stayed in the Gullah culture. Descendants who were
born in these areas lived off the land and traditions to exist. A language evolved among the
Gullah’s Artwork: Descendants’ Tradition for Existence


descendants that are often referred to as Gullah, Geechee, or the Gullah Geechee language.
When passing down traditions, the languages from the African roots blended with the English
language. Today's offspring which are born in these areas lives off the land mixed with today's
influences and share in the traditions of the Gullah ancestors. Some of them may or may not
speak the language, but most of them have the accent deriving from the language. After talking
to them, one can experience passion, creative abundance, intuition, pride, and sincere love for
every aspect of the beginning and departure of life. Dr. Ade Ofunniyin, the CEO and Founder of
The Gullah Society and the grandson of the late Phillip Simmons- a world renowned Blacksmith,
is one of the many Gullah people who continue to live in the extension of his Gullah ancestors.
Meanwhile, the Gullah ancestry connection links the individual to the birthplace of the Gullah
ancestors. Some descendants were born outside of these regions, but returned to the areas to live
and be raised in the culture. (National Park Service) Both descendants who stayed and those who
returned are participating in one of the most important traditions even right now- the arts.
The Gullah artwork is reflective of living off the land and passing down traditions, stories
and knowledge of the culture. Living off the land produced inventors and artists. Passing down
traditions required passionate love and respect for the ancestors to keep them alive in every
moment of their lives. Passing down stories occurred during the time of stormy days, easing
pain, describing their colorful life and the resurrection of experiences. Passing down knowledge
required its presence shown on all aspects of the artists, like teaching another how to fish by
making a fishnet. The Gullah artists would be those who are Gullah and artists who are inspired
from the elements of the Gullah culture. Inspiration in this culture required a witness to any
event and experiences. The event would be a Gullah neighborhood gathering or a feast where
everyone was dressed up to celebrate a bountiful harvest. An experience would be how one could
Gullah’s Artwork: Descendants’ Tradition for Existence


be healed from the moss of the Spanish moss tree in the yard, a piece of cotton growing steadily
in the fields, or a tobacco leaf waving in the wind. A Gullah artist would be such a witness. The
Gullah artists would be inspired to create from the events and experiences living in the culture.
These kinds of Gullah artists have experienced the culture with and without another Gullah
person's experiences. Then, there are Gullah artists who would be inspired to create by the events
and experiences that were passed down by their families and ancestors. These Gullah artists
continue to pass down the knowledge and traditions through his or her artwork, which could be a
family tradition on its own. The artwork was instrumental to live from and expressive. The
artwork comes in two distinct forms, functional and creative.
In the Gullah culture, all functional artwork derived from creativity because it took
creativity to invent the functional artwork. The functional forms included items that were used as
tools to live off the land and in the culture. (National Park Service) Some examples of the
functional items were sweetgrass baskets, hand-made fishnets, ironwork, boats, soaps, culinary,
and quilting. Sabree’s, a national Gullah artist, late mother took up the art of soap making and
quilting. Both art forms helped the family of fifteen to sustain in the culture. The functional
artwork can be seen and created today, but in some areas are not used in the functions that were
originally created. The sweet grass baskets were originally made in the harvesting of rice. Now
they are historic and original collectables being made now from one of the international basket-
weavers, Jery Taylor, among others. Along with the functional artwork, the creative artwork is
still being created.
The creative forms include items that allowed storytelling, illustrating, traditions,
dancing, singing and daily living a way to pass the knowledge since proper American education
lacked from some of the family. A recent winner on American Idol, Candace Glover, is a Gullah
Gullah’s Artwork: Descendants’ Tradition for Existence


person; which is an example of the creative arts- singing. The most expressive example of the
creative form is through paintings. In every painting, there are vibrant-bold colors; scenes of
memories; and a display of living for the purpose of educating and preservation. Sometimes in
the paintings, there may be featureless or faceless people because it can be anyone with any
emotion. It also represents the mystery of the ancestors' direct link to Africa. Every piece of
artwork from the Gullah artists is in respect, contribution, full expression, preserving and
extension of the Gullah ancestors. Those who are not Gullah and are calling their artwork Gullah
are irresponsible for the survival of the culture, misleading and misrepresenting the authenticity
of the culture. Furthermore, it is considered disrespectful and plagiarism amongst the Gullah
culture, its people and its artwork.
The Gullah culture evolved from the survival of slavery, the survival of isolation, and the
survival of the lack of American education. The Gullah people live as a family united in
traditions and preservations along the southeastern regions of the United States of America. The
Gullah artwork remains as a living reflection of the culture as a means of living, a means of
educating and a means of existing today from the hands of the Gullah people. Therefore, the
thriving survival of the Gullah culture is through the distinctive arts created only by those who
are Gullah.

Gullah’s Artwork: Descendants’ Tradition for Existence


Campbell, E. S. (2008). Gullah Cultural Legacies: A Synopsis of Gullah Traditions, Customary
Beliefs, Art forms and Speech on Hilton Head Island and vicinal Sea Islands in South
Carolina and Georgia (3
ed.). Hilton Head Island, SC: Gullah Heritage Consulting
Gullah Geechee Corridor. (2012). Retrieved from
Low Country Africana. (2014). Retrieved from
National Park Service. Low Country Gullah Culture Special Resource Study and Final
Environmental Impact Statement. Atlanta, GA: NPS Southeast Regional Office, 2005.
Pollitzer, W. S. (1999). The Gullah People and Their African Heritage. Athens, GA: The
University of Georgia Press.