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Updated 10:00 AM October 13, 2003



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South Carolina Sundays lead to fan exhibition

Memories of Sundays in South Carolina led Marianetta Porter to research what she calls Black church fans—objects that Porter says have been a ubiquitous presence in Black churches for nearly a century.

(Above) “But Jesus said” (photographer: Marianetta Porter) (Below) “Stories told in Sunday school” (illustrator: Susan Skarsgard) and “Dreams of Childhood” (photographer: Karen Sanders)

An associate professor of art in the School of Art & Design (A&D), Porter says "these objects reveal much about the African American past, their uses as cultural icons as well as the history, meanings and social contexts attached to them."

Porter's own memories and research have resulted in "Memory Breeze," a series of contemporary fans she has created that emulate the styles, shapes and textual layouts of the original versions. "These fan interpretations are meditations [in imagery and poems] that reflect the impressions of my childhood, of church and the simple Southern countryside of my youth," Porter says.

"Memory Breeze" will run through Oct. 27 in the Warren Robbins Gallery in the Art and Architecture Building on North Campus.

During her research, Porter found a fan collector in California who sent her some examples of Black church fans from her collection. Porter photographed those to use as a resource. The examples dating from the first 50 years of the 20th century carried images of Black families worshiping in church, a Black Jesus, intact families and loving relationships. The opposite side of the fans carried advertisements for funeral homes or other businesses owned by Blacks. Such businessmen sometimes were the only college-educated residents in some of the Southern Black communities, Porter says. They took leadership roles in the community, both socially and politically.

Traditionally fans carried images of heroes such as Martin Luther King Jr., Mahalia Jackson and Booker T. Washington. President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert sometimes were displayed alongside images of King.

Porter's fans are rich in metaphors, modern color technology and her poetry relating to the religious teachings represented.

"Even though Black churches today are air conditioned, churchgoers still use fans," Porter says. "I'm interested in the significance of this. Why do fans persist today?"

Are the fans a cultural artifact of African origins? Porter has found that African societies once used fans as symbols of power. Elaborate fans made of feathers or palm leaves once were used to cool royalty. Porter says fanning not only ventilates the body, but may also be used to cool the spirit. Noted art historian Robert Farris Thompson has suggested that when you fan someone, you throw a blessing. "I have a notion that those cultural meanings are still carried in the body long after we have forgotten their significance," Porter says.

In creating her contemporary fans, Porter and her collaborator, A&D graduate student Susan Skarsgard, used older versions to look for themes in imagery, text and other commonalities. The Memory Breeze exhibition is a "work in progress," Porter says. "This is just the start of what I envision to be a larger work. I want feedback. I want others to share their memories."

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