The Gari Melchers Collectors’ Society, a Telfair Museums member engagement group, held its Annual Meeting and Acquisition Event on May 3, 2018. Melchers Society members voted to make a significant purchase for the museum’s permanent collection with funds that had been accruing for several years. The group’s largest purchase to date, it included five important works of art for the museum’s collection, including a work from contemporary artist Carrie Mae Weems’ Sea Islands Series, photographs by 20th-century icons Walker Evans and Edward Weston, an 1861 signed ceramic jug by enslaved potter David Drake, and a video-based work by contemporary Swiss artist Katja Loher. Together, these noteworthy acquisitions will make significant progress towards Telfair’s collecting goals.
Carrie Mae Weems (American, b. 1953) is considered one of the most influential contemporary artists working today. The Melchers Society purchased a four-part work, Untitled (Peanuts), from her Sea Islands Series. This series, created between 1991 and 1992, consists of black-and-white photographs combined with lyrical, folkloric texts examining Gullah-Geechee heritage and culture of the Sea Islands off the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia. Weems made this body of work while studying African folklore in graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley. Untitled (Peanuts) was on view as part of the recent Telfair exhibition Carrie Mae Weems: Sea Islands Series, 1991–1992. This specific work has particular resonance in Savannah, as the two center images depict small businesses on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd in the early 1990s, and the two text panels reference the origins of the words “Gullah” and “Geechee” and the origins of “peanut.” Weems’s work highlights the fact that many of the regional words we use and recognize today, such as “goober,” are derived from the African languages originally brought to the Americas by enslaved Africans.
Walker Evans (American, 1903-1975) is regarded as a master of 20th-century American photography. Tenant Farmer’s Wife, Alabama (1936) was made by Evans on assignment by Fortune magazine to document the lives of sharecroppers in Hale County, Alabama. His portrait of Allie Mae Burroughs, the wife of a sharecropper and mother of four, has become an iconic depiction of the Depression-era South. This photograph will be on view at Telfair’s Jepson Center in the exhibition The Language of Vision: Early Twentieth-Century Photography from August 17, 2018 through January 13, 2019.
Edward Weston (American, 1886-1958) is also regarded as a master of 20th-century American photography. Bonaventure Cemetery, Savannah, GA (1941) by Edward Weston is on view until September 23 in the exhibition Bonaventure: A Historic Cemetery in Art. This photograph was taken during Weston’s cross-country journey to create a visual portrait of America for a republication of Walt Whitman’s poetry collection Leaves of Grass. Weston’s image of Bonaventure Cemetery shows a sharply contrasted image that focuses on gravestones, including the Telfair family monument, beneath the oak trees draped in Spanish moss.
David Drake (American, 1800-c. 1870) was an enslaved potter in the Edgefield District of South Carolina. The only literate enslaved potter ever recorded, Drake signed and dated much of his work. This piece features Drake’s signature, the initials of his owner Lewis Miles, and the date June 18, 1861. The date of this piece is significant, as Confederates had opened fire on Fort Sumter, beginning the Civil War, only a month before Drake signed this jar. Even in the midst of a conflict over slavery, Drake openly defied laws forbidding slaves to read and write. This piece will be used in exhibitions exploring the lives and work of the men, women, and children who were enslaved in the United States, as well as in exhibitions focused on ceramics.
Artist Katja Loher (Swiss, b. 1979) creates video sculptures that offer a glimpse into the extraordinary language developed by honeybees to communicate the distance, direction and quality of a food source. Bees that have returned from foraging perform a group of movements that closely resembles a figure eight. Also known as the “waggle” dance, this mode of communication has been threatened by industrial food production and its use of pesticides. Loher’s interpretation of the dance celebrates its beauty and intricate complexity while addressing its vulnerability to current agricultural practices and Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). During the dance, the “bees” in the video lose their wings and become increasingly more human. In fact the “bees” are human dancers, choreographed by the artist. The videos are encased in blown glass bubbles inviting the viewer to look closely and to envision a future in which humans may have to do the work of pollinator species. This work is now on view in the Jepson Center’s TechSpace.
The Gari Melchers Collectors’ Society is a Telfair Museums member engagement group founded in 2005 to support and promote the expansion of the museum’s permanent collection while providing its members with exclusive programs and educational opportunities to enhance their enjoyment and appreciation of art. The Society is named in honor of Gari Melchers, Telfair Museums’ fine arts advisor from 1906-1916 and a respected American artist who acquired some to Telfair’s most important and enduring works. The Melchers Society members play an integral role in Telfair operations by actively participating in the growth of the museum’s collection; funds raised by the group go directly to supporting the acquisition of works of art for the permanent collection.