South Africa native and Milford folk artist Anne Jenkins was so moved by Gov. Jack Markell's decision to celebrate Harriet Tubman's 100th anniversary in March that it compelled her to create a new installation project that depicts African Americans' pilgrimage through the Underground Railroad.
Jenkins, a 2013 recipient of Delaware Division of the Arts Individual Artist Fellowship in the category of established professional, will debut her new work at the Biggs Museum of American Art in Dover as part of Award Winners XIII on Aug. 2.
Award Winners is an annual exhibition in which Delaware Division of the Arts' Individual Artist Fellowship winners get to feature their work at The Biggs. The exhibit ends Oct. 13.
Jenkins' Underground Railroad installation is a mixed-media project that will be told with seven paintings chronicling blacks, beginning before they were enslaved and then to enslavement, the Underground Railroad and finally freedom. The pieces are decorated with watercolor, charcoal and acrylics on watercolor paper/canvas, in which the watercolor paper/canvas will be sealed or sewn into seven large panels of burlap that measure roughly 8 feet in length and 3.5 feet in width that will hang from the ceiling.
The first painting is titled "Torn From Home" and depicts a peaceful village in Africa where families are cooking and working. That painting is near the top of the burlap and below it is another painting of a map of Africa designed with a red slave ship at the center. Jenkins plans to rip the village painting in half and place one section near the ship to symbolize how slavery separated families. She's run this idea by her friends and "everyone is appalled," she said. But Jenkins won't budge because she feels this story needs to be told.
Jenkins' second piece, tentatively titled "Sold," features a woman and child in red dresses, along with a man in tattered pants and a white shirt who are each up for bid on a trading block. The woman in the red dress is a reoccurring character in the final six paintings as she represents the strength of women like Tubman who helped slaves escape from slavery, Jenkins said. She added the color red plays a significant role throughout the installation project because it's an attractive hue that symbolizes both strength and pain.
Piece number three, "Plantation," shows the woman in red observing men working in the field.
Pieces four through six ("The Journey to Freedom Begins," "Trust" and "Taste of Freedom") depicts slaves traveling along the Underground Railroad and moving closer to liberty. And the seventh panel is succinctly titled "Freedom."
Jenkins says the first three panels of burlap will be weighted down by a rusted old chain from a boatyard to symbolize the oppression of slavery. Then the next three pieces of burlap (paintings four through six) will be anchored by stone since the paintings will reflect slaves traveling along the Underground Railroad to reflect how they're treading "rocky ground," since slaves were still being pursued by bounty hunters. And Jenkins is still deciding on what she'll attach to the bottom of her final piece.
Page 2 of 2 - Jenkins knows the theme behind here installation project is a sensitive one. And she hopes people will be touched by her work as it tells a dark story that ends on a bright note.
"It's going to be powerful," she said. "It's a very powerful subject."
IF YOU GO
WHAT Award Winners XIII exhibit
WHEN Aug. 2 (date exhibit open); museum hours are 9 to 4:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 1:30 to 4:30 p.m., Sunday; the exhibit ends Oct. 13
WHERE Biggs Museum of American Art, 406 Federal St., Dover
INFO biggsmuseum.org or call 674-2111