By Hamzat Sani, Special to the AFRO
About 20 miles south of Washington, D.C. lies an old plantation which once housed slaves that has been transformed into a home for some of the most innovative Black makers and artists the DMV has to offer. Makers In The Mansion: Stories of A Transformed African American Community at Woodlawn Through the Artisan Eye, an art exhibit featuring the works of 7 Black artists of different mediums, opened to the public this week at the Woodlawn Mansion. Each artists’ work occupies a room at the tremendous estate conjuring the voices and experiences of the Black ancestors that once toiled the land.
Woodlawn Mansion, once enslaved Blacks to maintain the 2,000 acre property. (Courtesy Photo)
Woodlawn Mansion occupies an peculiar place in local and American history. Once a part of President George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate, the founding father gifted the land to his nephew Lawrence Lewis. The mansion was designed for the Lewis’ by the architect of the U.S. Capitol, William Thornton. in 1805. The Lewis’ depended on 90 enslaved Blacks to maintain the 2,000 acre property until they sold the estate to Northern Quakers with a new vision for the land. The Quakers, who took ownership of the land in 1846, took a radical experimental approach to toiling the land; they setup one of the first free labor colonies selling lands to free Blacks and White farmers alike. This idea of Black bodies taking ownership of spaces and toiling freely on spaces that once enslaved them resonates with the work of the artist and makers that now inhabit the historic mansion.
Artfully curated by the site’s Director of Site Interpretation & Partnerships Amanda Phillips, the exhibition’s artists include locally known and respected artists.
Documenting the exhibit itself, as well as showing her original work, is photographer/ videographer Jai Williams, author of Plantations in Virginia. A photog with credits including the Washington Post, Michelin Guide and Ad Week, Williams creates scenes that intimately portray the installations’ relationship with the space.
Nicole Crowder’s offering for the exhibit include a representation of her signature bold, contemporary bespoke furniture while utilizing lively reworking of upholstery within the constraints of historical one-of-a-kind furnishings.
Morgan Davis’ room in the mansion is a layered approach to the hyper oppressive narratives expressed in mainstream American society towards Black hair. Davis presents Black hair as a gatherer of fabric, as jewelry and as a warning to those with an offensive touch.
Quilter Sondra Barret Hassan’s tapestries line the walls of her dedicated room with signature styles and patterns that have earned her wall space in some of the most acclaimed museums, including the Smithsonian Sumner Museum, the Corcoran Gallery and the Smithsonian National Museum for African American Art and Culture.
The sculpture of Oya created by Njena Surae Jarvis stands out. Utilizing an intricate dying technique Jarvis creates a figure that is fierce and transfixing. A Duke Ellington School of the Arts alum, Jarvis masterfully adorns every aspect of the mansion’s room with indigo dyed fabric, beautiful and bold jewelry and other artifacts to create Oya’s chamber.
One of the more haunting installations is that of Antonio McAfee with his work Unmaking and Making/ Variations of Figures which uses portraits of Black faces bent, contorted and reshaped hanging chandelier-like along a broad window. The disfigured images creates an unforgettable effect for the eyes as hanging faces flash between existence and absence.
Likely the largest installation is created by art director and graphic designer Hadiya Williams. With ingenious use of print, pattern, fabric and sculpting Williams creates a stellar dining table place setting that sets the audience on a journey through the history of those held in bondage during the slave trade in Virginia. Particularly moving is the list of slaves written in modern font that is a reminder of what this home may have meant to the ancestors that toiled the land.
Writer in residence Cherryl T. Cooley will be creating ongoing text for the exhibition capurting in words the dynamic nature of each artist and their work.
The Woodlawn Mansion Museum is is owned and operated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The mansion is located at 9000 Richmond Highway, Alexandria, VA 22309. For more information go to woodlawnandpopeleighey.org.