Remembrance as Resistance: Preserving Black Narratives at the Oakland Cemetery

By June 19, 2021
Chamaine Minniefield in Oakland Cemetery. Photograph by Scott Lowden.
Nancy Friedemann-Sánchez’s Casta Paintings on view at Halsey Institute in Charleston through July16

In honor of Juneteenth, Atlanta-based artist and Burnaway contributor Caleb Jamel Brown sat down with Charmaine Minniefield to discuss her ambitious new project, Remembrance as Resistance: Preserving Black Narratives presented by Flux Projects in Oakland Cemetery. This project builds on Minniefield’s past works exploring the history of Praise Houses and Ring Shouts, the spiritual site and ritual gatherings of enslaved people. Using the wooden floors as substitutes for drums which were prohibited to the enslaved people, these sites formed sacred venues for movement, prayer, ritual, and resistance. Minniefield has created a replica of one such Praise House which will be activated with multimedia installations, sound, and other immersive elements to commemorate and honor the unmarked graves in the cemetery’s historical African American Burial Grounds. 

This interview was conducted in person and has been edited for publication. 

Caleb Jamel Brown: I know you often reference the Ring Shout and Praise Houses in your paintings but what made you decide to replicate an actual Praise house this time around?

Charmaine Minniefield: I’ve been a painter, but I’m also a muralist and all of my public art, in particular, is around memory, and preserving the history of the community around the artwork. To me, that act of preserving history is resistance. So, this project for me is an active work, and I’m doing it as an artist and activist, preserving the history of our entire city. For that reason, I considered a different format. In the last few years, I have begun to include digital projection and projection mapping in my practice. I like the intersection of technology and history as a way to gesture at Afrofuturism. 

This Praise House is inspired by one in South Georgia that was rescued by the Geechee Kunda Cultural Arts Center & Museum 35 miles south of Savannah. A hotel developer was about to demolish it, and they intervened and moved it to the Heritage center and is sitting upon a cinder block base similar to how this structure is, but it’s under a tarp. It’s in disrepair and my goal in all of this was to ultimately get enough attention and resources to restore their Praise House. That’s a long-term goal of the project.

CJB:  This reminds me of my past, growing up in the Baptist church here in Atlanta, and seeing how so many Black artists are already engaging in these practices while not always understanding their West African roots.The ring shout or speaking in tongues, or  being “overcome by the Holy Spirit” feels like a way to come  back to these ancient, traditional practices through contemporary art. 

CM: This resistance against erasure—it’s on a macro level but also on an individual, micro level.  Just knowing your identity, and knowing that within yourself is grounding, but also empowerment inside a community across time and generation, throughout the diaspora, because our identity is African. These practices resurface whether subconsciously or consciously preserved. It is all African, acknowledging the traditions unifies us and it asserts our right to exist.

And for me, the movement became my medicine.

CJB: The physicality of the movement, the voice, and the sound is also empowering.

Nancy Friedemann-Sánchez’s Casta Paintings on view at Halsey Institute in Charleston through July16

CM: And for me, the movement became my medicine. The movement is  a performative aspect of this project. This particular iteration will not have a dance performance. But last Juneteenth, I worked with one of my collaborators, Julie V Johnson, a choreographer from Spelman to create a digital Ring Shout. We collected moving images, short films of women dancing in prayer in different parts of the world. The result is a digital prayer in the form of a meditative short film. So for this year, I’m changing my medium and my approach.

CJB I’ve heard you compare Ring Shouts to quilting bees in the past.

CM: Yeah, they were acts of creating community, and I’m only using the past as a way to apply a larger framework to Black academic activism, because it’s collective intention. It is the well-wishing of our existence. It’s not political; it’s just wanting freedom, and committing to that act of preserving, pursuing, and protecting freedom for our people. That’s what prayer is, that’s what activism is, that’s what remembrance is.

Even within the church, Praise Houses are controversial in the sense that they weren’t necessarily Christian. Some of the songs were not always religious, some of them were work-related. Some of them were preserving historical facts and traditions. In West Africa whenever you come to gatherings or ceremonies, there is often a Griot there. I recently proclaimed my identity as a Griot.

CJB: How does being a Griot or oral history relate to the audio in this Installation?

CM: Well, let me tell you about my collaborators on the music.All my collaborators and contributors to this project are super dope. Malesha Jessie Taylor, an amazing soprano vocalist, and DJ Salah Ananse, their group, We Are Djeli— which is another word for Griot—recorded the score in a nearby historic African American church. They used First Congregational because of its history, but also the acoustics, that wooden floor. They used traditional Black music of the Praise House era for the score that will emanate from the building. It’ll boom over the whole cemetery for the duration of the project.

CJB: There are many religious or spiritual aspects to this work, but what about people that come to this work from a more secular place, without the context of growing up in the church?

CM: We all have ancestors, we’re sitting among them. That alone, is the point of entry for this work. We all have a past and a history that we don’t want to be erased. And we all have a future that we want to thrive and live in. The fact that we’re reaching to the past, to a faith practice to assert those concepts doesn’t, you know that concept. I don’t conflict with the hopefulness that is today, right now. This is our chance to create a new world. The whole world has been scrapped, the model of how we existed before is gone. And I believe, as an artist, that is our opportunity to create the world as we see it moving forward. Praise Houses were those kinds of spaces—of collective hopefulness, enduring oppression, but being uplifted in secret space.

Remembrance as Resistance: Preserving Black Narratives is presented by Flux Projects in Atlanta’s Historic Oakland Cemetery. It will be on view through July 11, 2021.

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