January 2009

Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe: Celebrating the way Daufuskie was

Author: Ann DeMart | Photographer: jeanne moutoussamy-ashe

Thirty years ago, when photographer Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe first set foot on Daufuskie Island, she found not only inspiration in the Gullah community, but also friends for life. From 1977 to 1981, she created gorgeous black and white gelatin prints that portray the beauty of the barrier island and its people. Eighty of these prints are in a splendid, thought-provoking exhibit at the Coastal Discovery Museum through the end of February.

In conjunction with the publication of the 25th anniversary edition of Daufuskie Island, Moutoussamy-Ashe spoke at the November 14th opening of the museum’s exhibit of these extraordinary photographs. We had the pleasure of speaking with the lovely, gracious artist and reveling in the images that document and celebrate the serene, simple life on Daufuskie Island as it stood poised for certain change.

CH2: Have you always been involved in the arts?
Moutoussamy-Ashe: I was lucky. I was raised with the arts; my father was an architect, my mother was a designer, and I studied at Cooper Union. My photography includes portraits, landscapes, interiors and cityscapes, and has always carried some social context. I’m constantly searching. That’s my passion.

CH2: What inspired your interest in Daufuskie?
Moutoussamy-Ashe: When I was in college, I developed a very strong interest in the transatlantic slave trade and did six months of independent study on the west coast of Africa. My studies piqued my curiosity about where these slave ships traveled, from the fishing villages on the coast of Africa to the Sea Islands on the southeast coast. The Lowcountry is unique in its history. The slave trade brought African traditions together with a rather isolated American experience. One example is the Gullah language, a distinct language influenced by both English and African speech. Another is found in the prayer houses, which mixed the Christian traditions of the slave masters with religious practices from Africa.

CH2: What was life like on Daufuskie in 1977?
M-A: There were fewer than 50 homes and only about 80 African-American people. Many still spoke their native Gullah language. There was only a store, a two-room school, a nursery and one church. Even though the culture had been relatively undisturbed for nearly 50 years, it was obvious that the island was going to develop into a resort like its neighbor, Hilton Head.

CH2: Your photographs show people crabbing and fishing, children playing, at family gatherings, even a wedding. How did you gain such access to the islanders’ lives?
M-A: Donald Bogle, a film historian and writer, and Emory Campbell, a renowned community leader of the Gullah people, introduced me to the history of the Sea Island and to Verta Mae Grosvenor. She introduced me to Daufuskie Island. They gave me a lot more credibility than if I had just gone there on my own. I got on a small boat with my late husband [tennis legend, Arthur Ashe] and traveled over to the island. Although Arthur was generally well known in 1977, the islanders didn’t have a clue about who he was. We were well received by the islanders, especially the late Susie Smith, who housed me during the project. She said, “If you come to Daufuskie, you come to my house.” I did for years, and we remained close until the day she died. [Susie’s daughter, Ernestine, whom Moutoussamy-Ashe met as a teenager, attended the exhibit opening.] I treasure how I was welcomed into their private culture.

CH2: What changes did you see over the years you took the photographs?
M-A: Development. We knew it was coming when I first visited; and when I went back in 1985, it had pretty much started. These photographs could not be made today. The Daufuskie I photographed no longer exists. Many of islanders do not live there anymore, since the property values have skyrocketed. There are resorts and tourists now. The Gullah culture and language have weakened in the process, which could have included doing more for the people. We can’t stop change, but we need to be more mindful of helping people develop when we develop their land. Now, I can see how things can work better. But that was a different time in my life, and it’s hard to be a young visionary.

CH2: How do you feel when you see the photographs today?
M-A: I still feel the emotion and energy I first felt when I enlarged the photographs. You can see the beauty and simplicity of the islanders’ lives. Look at the photographs of the wedding, at the bride’s bouquet. Daisies and baby’s breath, perfectly simple. Nothing detracts from the pure joy and significance of the occasion. My impressions of the island and the people have remained a presence in my thoughts.

CH2: Is the 25th anniversary edition of Daufuskie Island different from the version published in 1982?
M-A: I included more than 50 additional photographs in this collection. As a more experienced photographer and activist, I exercised more control over the design and presentation, creating a more explicit critique about what has happened to the Daufuskie community, a unique and vibrant subset of African American culture.

The 25th anniversary edition of Jeanne Moutsoussamy-Ashe’s Daufuskie Island, with a forward by Alex Haley, can be purchased at bookstores and the Coastal Discovery Museum, where limited edition and signed gelatin prints are also available. The exhibit will be on display at the museum through February 28, 2009. For more information, call (843) 689-6767 or visit www.coastaldiscovery.org.

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