- Places for the Spirit: Traditional African American Gardens
Vaughn Sills’ new collection of photographs offers a layered look into African-American Gardens of the South. This book is an important historical record of African-American culture and traditions, but Sills’ photographs offer much more. The photographs provide a view into the gardens as if invited by the owner to take part in an intimate experience. Sills allows the viewer to participate in the creation of a secret world, one of deep meaning that is only fully comprehended by experiencing time in relation to existence. The photographs depict space and object with an ethereal quality that glimmers throughout Sills’ photographs, drawing the viewer in through glowing and reflected light.
The photographs appear as vintage representations from decades ago—referencing the capture of a classical period of African-American life—even though some were taken in the late 1980s and as recently as 2000. Sills captures the unexpected in the gardens, yet the objects photographed appear so at home that one puzzles over whether the objects were placed or discovered. Sills poses the questions of whether these objects were from an archeological discovery that uncovered an ancient and mystical place and time, or a representational aesthetic that strategically laid out the objects as compositions. Noticeably, the photographs have a consistency in arrangement, numbers of objects, and the variations within the photographic frame. The objects in the gardens are at once complex yet ordinary. Shoes, bottles, tins, rocks, tires, shells, jars, and even pipes fill the spaces. The gardens exalt [End Page 321] the ordinary and the utilitarian in a celebration of the beautiful and mystical, with toilets becoming planters and an old swing set used for hanging pots. The wondrous thing within these gardens is how the ordinary becomes sculpture, painting, and ornament. Color and light become the equivalent of exotic plant material. They are the palette from which the gardens appear to be painted, making the connection to the earth on which they rest and the heavens they reflect. Some of the photographs concentrate on a particular arrangement, “sculptural constructions” as Sills describes them. Bottles on the branches of a tree or an elaborate tire planter photographed in Herman Thompson’s yard in Jenkinsville, South Carolina for example (9). Plants and objects of treasure often appear carefully arranged on porches yet spill over under trees and onto carefully swept grounds.
Adjacent to a number of the photographs, Sills offers a description of what is in the garden. Her writing hints at scenes giving little interpretation of meaning. Instead, meaning is left for the viewer to decipher, though there is a descriptive approach to her images proffered in the preface by Hilton Als and the introduction by Lowry Pei. Viewing the photographs outside of reading the preface or forward allows for a grasp of the apparent sacredness of these spaces, through swept grounds, the coded arrangements, and the repetitive placement of objects. Another sacred clue are the photographs Sills takes of the stewards of these gardens, like Annie Belle Sturghill of Athens, Georgia (74), whose strength and quiet dignity are exhibited in her eyes.
The name of the subject Sills explores appears below each photograph with the location of their garden. Like a home, a garden is a repository for the spirit, hopes, and dreams of those who care for and live in it. Sills’ photographs speak of this connection, as well as the connection between house and garden. Trees often shade the homes studied, and Sills shows the trees as they cradle house and garden, creating a harmonious blend.
While the preface establishes Sills’ academic awareness of gardens, her photographs reveal her heart and eyes were most moved by a complex, yet ordinary kind of beauty. The introduction by Lowry Pei does an excellent job of expressing the importance of the symbolic and cultural meaning of the gardens and the objects they...