Reimagining history

Palimpsest examines history, both real and imagined

The key to any encounter with the exhibition Retreat: Palimpsest of a Georgia Sea Island Plantation at Clark Atlanta University Galleries is an understanding of "palimpsest." According to The American Heritage College Dictionary, palimpsest is defined as "a manuscript, usually of papyrus or parchment, written on more than once, with the earlier writing incompletely erased and often legible." Memory is like a palimpsest; our minds are layered in forgotten and repressed history. Who does not embellish the past for the purpose of a sweeter recollection?
Land, possessing the same malleable qualities, sometimes swallows history whole. Focusing on the history of coastal land once known as Retreat Plantation on St. Simons Island, local artist Lisa Tuttle and local historian Melanie Pavich-Lindsay play with the notion of sublimation. In doing so, they revive a textured Southern chronicle.
Commencing with the shell mounds left by nomadic Guale Indians, the multi-dimensional installation carries the viewer through time to the current use of the land as a golf club and resort. Survey maps and pages copied from history books, bones, alligator hide and collaged vintage portraits begin the task of creating and effacing. An area of the exhibition defined as "Section 2: Retreat" dwells on the cotton plantation years. Here Tuttle's gift for fabricating narratives takes over. "Authentic" representations of Anna Matilda Page King, daughter of the original Retreat plantation owner, along with her family and slaves, evoke rather than recall factual history through delicate domestic artifacts, photographs and pages from antique auction catalogs, along with photocopied excerpts of letters and ledgers from the 1800s.
The overlay of fact and fiction may somewhat confound the viewer. In the "Museum of the Now" section of Retreat, the collaborators bring the viewer back to reality with copies of real documents and present day photographs. Careful readers learn the true life story of Neptune Small, a slave who accompanied one of King's sons into the Civil War, brought the son's body home and cared for the grave until he died. The wall display shows that an island garden club since has been named after Small, while amateur snapshots illustrate how the plantation's historic ruins have been reduced to an island inside the resort.
Though golf balls may have replaced cotton bolls on the land known as Retreat, in the mind of Atlanta artist Lynn Marshall-Linnemeier, deep psychological and emotional scars remain. Her own display, "A Slave Speaks of Silence," recalls what she imagines to be the voice of Rhina, Anna King's personal slave. In a small side room, Marshall-Linnemeier's large-scale, brightly embellished photoportraits of black women bring to life some of the thoughts that surface on viewing the cooler statement of Retreat. Pink, green, blue and yellow backdrops seem to deny the hand-written text that remembers the pathos of servitude. "The colors are bright," says Marshall-Linnemeier, "symbolizing the endurance and happiness gleaned from the surreal existence of being owned by another human being." The contemporary photographs, she notes, are to remind American blacks "that any of us could have been slaves."
Retreat: Palimpsest of a Georgia Sea Island Plantation is on view through April 13 at Clark Atlanta University Galleries, 223 James P. Brawley Drive. 404-880-6102. Sunday Discussion Circle will be held March 11 at 3 p.m. ("On Knowing and Speaking-Education").