Atlanta photographer and painter Lynn Marshall-Linnemeier almost became an artist ensconced in the wine-and-cheese museum crowd. But her career took a left turn, the artist choosing instead to work in small communities, mostly in the rural South, excavating the hidden local histories that often go overlooked.
Her current project, Mapping the Present Just Went By, at the Madison-Morgan Cultural Center in Madison, Ga., is part art installation, part archival research project and part community activism. With Madison resident Ollie Rivers acting as her guide to the local culture, Marshall-Linnemeier unearthed the story of Anna Charleston, among others. Charleston was a black slave whose children were fathered by John Orr, a white man. By all accounts, the relationship was mutual. Though not the norm, such relationships weren't unheard of.
Charleston's descendants still live in the area, and their story is covered in a short documentary shot and edited by Atlanta documentary filmmaker Taryn Lee Crenshaw. Another centerpiece of the exhibit is the "Agan," a large mass of fabric strips made by Marshall-Linnemeier and the residents of Madison. The names of black slaves discovered in the Madison town archives are sewn into the work, which is designed as a costume to be danced in.
The room is punctuated with the paintings of Madison artist Eugene Swain. They're made in a flat, illustrative folk style reminiscent of Benny Andrews, another Madison native son, and chronicle intimate scenes of Madison life, past and present.
These artifacts and art works combine to create a narrative of black Madison, a story all but invisible even in Madison itself. It's a thoroughly American story: The confrontation of races that's sometimes a dance and sometimes a battle, and the power of understanding ancestry through personal family histories. Here Marshall-Linnemeier and Rivers discuss the project.
Tell me about the genesis of this project.
Lynn Marshall-Linnemeier: The first project that I worked on like this started in 1989. It was in Mound Bayou, Miss. I was working on a collaborative project with Duke's Center for Documentary Studies, the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at Ole Miss — University of Mississippi, and Jackson State's Mass Communication Project. It was called Mississippi Self-Portrait. I had to travel all throughout the state of Mississippi meeting with African-American families, recording their stories. I wound up in a town in the Delta called Mound Bayou. It's the largest African-American town in the United States. I wound up there with [restaurant owner] Milburn Crowe, who had this amazing photographic collection. So he became a mentor.
That's the basis for the "Journey" projects. ... I would go in, and in the case of Mound Bayou, I photographed and came back with a series called Sanctuary. That is now at the High Museum; they have it in their permanent collection.
From there I went to use the same paradigm: I'm going to go into a community, going to meet folks, get a mentor, meet people in the community, talk to people, take photographs, develop a narrative, and put the exhibit up in the community. That's the key. So people would come.
Why are you interested in the South?
LML: I'm a GRITS — Girl Raised in the South. And it's where I'm very comfortable. I just love this region. I never tried to get away from it. I claim it. I think it has the most interesting history behind it. I think that in order to understand the fabric of America you really have to understand this really critical piece of cloth, which is the American South. If we can get the South figured out, then everything else falls into place.
Tell me about the issue of interracial relationships in early Southern history, which your project explores.
LML: Basically, it's like this stereotypical narrative that we're kind of taught, especially in terms of interracial relationships. The rape narrative. We can't get outside that rape narrative, [we don't learn] that people actually did have relationships during slavery, that there were some narratives that were outside of the norm. In fact quite a few of them, probably, were outside of that rape narrative. As is [one] case here in Madison [where a white man] lived with his African-American wife and refused to leave her. That narrative was repeated throughout the South. That there were often times white men had two families, a black family and a white family. [African-Americans] don't look like the colors of the rainbow for no reason. And rape was not always the case in many of these relationships. As is the case with Anna Charleston and [John] Orr, who fathered her daughter and five of her children.
Clearly, there was rape. I'm not trying to [deny] that, but in order to understand history you got to be able to bring in other components of it and other ways of looking at it, 'cause otherwise you just get this one-sided, monotone history. And I think that as people we're so much more complicated than that.
How has the project affected the community?
Ollie Rivers: Blacks in Morgan County didn't feel comfortable [at the Cultural Center]. Like, "I'm not going there." But when Lynn came with this project, it brought them all; it brought all the black people out. I've never seen so many black people at the Cultural Center ever. And we need the little ones to come up feeling like it's OK for them to be here. They have a right to come here just like anybody else.
You also did a project in Australia, Lynn. How was that different?
LML: The aboriginal community was real different because you're dealing with racism on a different kind of level. It's a racism that's based on skin color, but you're dealing with indigenous people. So that's one of the first things: This is their land. It would be very much like doing the same thing with the Native American community: You're on their land. So, some of the same dynamics were operating over there, interracial relationships are different in Australia than here. In Australia, at one point in time, the policy of the Australian government was to "white out" aboriginal people. So they were encouraging interracial relationships. They were encouraging them, because the idea was if they kept mixing then they would all be white.
OR: They didn't think they could all be black?
LML: They weren't trying to make them black, only white.
Tell me a little bit about the Reynoldstown project.
LML: This was 1993, '92? I couldn't get a soul to support me, except for the Reynoldstown Civic Improvement League. And they helped me out. Bought my own film, but they were very helpful in getting me into the community and getting me moving around in that community. And I'd done projects in Reynoldstown before. So it became real easy. And Borders of Faith was at Hughley Gallery, and it was the biggest crowd that they had had.
What does it mean to you now to work with the people in Madison?
LML: I'm coming in for a special purpose which is to look at these stories, to look at this community, and to move through this community. I'm on a journey. And I wanna learn through someone else what this place is about so that I can reinterpret or reimagine what I see. These are the people who are already here.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated from its original version.