Ellis and Anna Mae Thomas is a portrait of a farm. Through the title, Syd Carpenter celebrates the farmers by name. In this way, she enters into the historical record people who are often ignored or unknown.
For Carpenter, land ownership offers roots, sustenance, and belonging. Her artwork uplifts contemporary African American stewards of the land while encouraging conversations on the history of black farmers in the United States. She investigates how systematic racism and government policies have hurt black farmers, who have lost more than 80 percent of their acreage over the last century.
From the exhibition: Give a damn. (June 30 – September 30, 2018)
I’m working on an exhibition right now for fall 2020 that focuses on the issues and challenges women in the U.S. have faced in politics and society over the last 100 years. The show gathers 100 artworks by a diverse group of 100 woman and non-binary artists working in various mediums. The exhibition manifests a plurality of women’s experiences, views, and modes of expression.
One of the works in the show is Syd Carpenter’s Ellis and Anna Mae Thomas (2009–2010), from the series “Places of Our Own.” [Syd Carpenter], a gardener herself, explores the history and contemporary practices of Black gardeners and farmers by transforming maps like the one of Ellis and Anna Mae’s property into relief sculptures full of movement and energy, that embody, as Carpenter has said, “what a flat form looks like when it inhales.”
Carpenter’s work reminds us of the reality of farming history: skilled Black men and women have worked the soil of this country, especially in the South and West, for generations, both as laborers and as innovators. In [Leah Penniman]’s book Farming While Black, she acknowledges how out of place she felt in the white-dominated agricultural community, and how immensely restorative it was to learn the true history of Black farming: that organic farming techniques are an indigenous African system revived in the U.S. by Dr. George Washington Carver; that Dr. Booker T. Whatley of Tuskegee University helped invent Community-Supported Agriculture; that Black farmers have been creating land trusts and cooperative farms in the U.S. for over 100 years.
In the composition of this sculpture, forms suggest an aerial view of the farm, but also a human figure composed of fields and roads and trees, reinforcing the conceptual connection between African Americans and farming. This link is far more expansive than a history of enslaved bodies doing labor, and is instead a wide-ranging, essential notion of land as key to agency, creativity, and justice.