It took only twenty-five minutes for photographer Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe’s boat to cross the threshold of the present and dock peacefully in the world of the past. It was 1977 when the artist first set foot on South Carolina’s humble nine-mile stretch of land. Moutoussamy-Ashe first caught word of Daufuskie Island from a friend while on vacation in Charleston with her husband, the tennis phenom Arthur Ashe. With the only access available by water, the island managed to isolate itself from the outside world, abstaining from modern luxuries such as electricity and telephone service. In doing so, Daufuskie was like a time capsule, perfectly preserving the roots of a culture that had remained untouched for more than a century.
At the end of the Civil War, with nowhere else to go, freed slaves re-inhabited land of the very men that once held them captive, finding work in the oyster and logging industries. Like many other refugees across the nation, the new Daufuskie residents were the product of plantations, blending their native West African tongue with the new American dialect to create a hybrid culture that would come to be known as Gullah. The new community prospered until excess pollution forced closure on the oyster beds and the population dwindled from 2,000 down to 60. Abandoned by progress and virtually marooned on the island, the residents were forced to rely on a primal system of commerce in order to survive.
Native Tongue // The word daufuskie — which comes from the native language of Muscogee, the first inhabitants of the island — translates to “sharp feather,” due to the island’s unique shape.
“There were fewer than 50 homes and only about 80 African-American people. Many still spoke their native Gullah language,” the artist recalls about her first trip. “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.”
Realizing the danger of incoming development, Moutoussamy-Ashe vowed to preserve what she could of the dying culture and to document the lives of its people. Over the four-year project, the artist not only photographed but also befriended the natives of Daufuskie, encasing their history in more than 80 black-and-white gelatin prints. Starting slow at first, Moutoussamy-Ashe took the time to learn the stories and personal histories of the natives before ever lifting up her camera. Although her time was brief, the artist was able to immortalize all that the island culture had to offer by capturing the simplicity, and beauty, of everyday life. From expressions of young love, to the comforts of home cooking, her images reveal the raw humanity of a culture before the tides of commercialism and development took over.
“We can’t stop change,” Moutoussamy-Ashe admits. “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.”
Today, Daufuskie boasts luxury resorts and a growing market for tourist activity. The breath of the Gullah people is long lost in the newly-developed soil, but their legacy remains stamped in every one of Moutoussamy-Ashe’s photographs. Her collection Daufuskie Island, first published in 1982, has gone on to be featured in museum exhibits across the nation, most recently finding a home at the Columbia Museum of Art.
Biding Time // This portrait of a Daufuskie resident, titled An Old Woman Sitting at a Table in Her Home, is one of many by photographer Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, during her four years documenting the island. The images are now on view at the Columbia Museum of Art.
“With Moutousammy-Ashe’s photos, people see and feel the rapid and drastic change that is going on all around us,” says William South, curator of the new Daufuskie Memories exhibit. “It feels like the world we grew up with is slipping away.”
The exhibit features 60 of Moutoussamy-Ashe’s original images of the daily lives of Daufuskie’s Gullah residents. South believes that the lesson of the series can still be felt in modern society. “Standing in front of her photos, I hear people talk about where they were from, how life was for them, and how things are now. I hear people talk about getting involved politically to help preserve what is important.”
To South, these conversations are of vital importance, the soul of the exhibit—preservation of a culture and time, lost to the present but resounding clearly as ever.
The Columbia Museum of Art will be showcasing Moutoussamy-Ashe’s Daufuskie Memories through August 7. For more information please visit columbiamuseum.org