Thursday, July 10, 2008

‘Picking Cotton’ Reveals Layers of History

For many people, the phrase “picking cotton” summons images of African slaves toiling against their will on the plantations of the American South. In the Visual Arts Gallery’s exhibition “Picking Cotton…Mississippi to Detroit,” that deeply rooted conjuring from our national psyche has been expertly woven by Nancy VanDevender into a multifarious installation of staged interiors that are at once beautiful and haunting, historical and fictional.

Comprised of layer upon layer of furniture, photographs, videos, hand-drawn tattoos, intricately designed wallpaper, and a racially diverse cast of characters that includes the artist herself, VanDevender’s “parlours” offer a glimpse of her life journey from a pre-Civil Rights childhood in Meridian, Miss., through her recent completion of the MFA program at Cranbrook Academy of Art near Detroit.

“Having been reared in Mississippi I had been told in spoken and unspoken terms of the differences in people accentuated by class structures and appearances,” says VanDevender, who will present an artist’s talk on July 23. “Making assumptions through facades proved inaccurate. Years later, in Detroit, I found a shared history with African Americans whose roots were also in the South. These discovered qualities of sameness are what interest me.”

That shared history is enshrined within VanDevender’s interiors, which draw visitors into spaces filled with lush wallpaper and furnishings. Once inside, close examination of the wallpaper reveals an elaborate collage of fabric, photographs and hand-drawn tattoos primarily depicting elements of cotton picking and processing. Large, vivid photographs of the same tattoos, this time depicted as body ornamentation on models, adorn the walls alongside intimate prints of two women grooming themselves at a dressing table. Every detail carries its own history as well as the history of a specific time, and collectively they tell a story that becomes increasingly resonant for the viewer.

By Mary Catherine Johnson

The exhibit runs through July 31 at the Visual Arts Gallery (700 Peavine Creek Dr.). The artist will speak Wednesday, July 23, at 7 p.m. at the gallery. For more information, call 404-727-6315 or visit

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