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S.C. artist is a global ambassador to humanity
Jonathan Green, a native of S.C., is widely considered one of the world’s most important living artists

by Jack Kirven . Q-Notes staff

Jonathan Green cannot remember a time when he wasn’t doing something creative with his hands.

Jonathan Green is a native of coastal South Carolina. He grew up within a culture called Gullah, a term probably of Angolan origin in Africa, and his memories of his people and their history animate everything in his creative consciousness. Following is a very brief description of a culture’s history and most prominent artist, so that the context of Green’s work can be better appreciated by the outside world.

The Gullah, throughout their 400-year history, have been enslaved, marginalized and displaced. They are a people who were bred like animals for a sole purpose: To create the landscapes that would support plantations and to work the fields surrounding them. There is no racial profile for someone who is Gullah, because their ancestors were of African, Native Islander and European stock. A Gullah person can be any color. These indigenous peoples were placed in mixed populations on slave ships purposefully. It prevented the captives from speaking to each other. The Gullah had to create a new language based on gesture, posture and an assortment of unrelated vocabulary words. Religiously speaking, according to Green, the people do not practice Christianity — their spirituality is more related to pre-Christian African belief systems. Gullah is the most purely African tradition within the North American subculture called African-American.


With a foreword by S.C. writer Pat Conroy, ‘Gullah Images’ is filled with 180 color illustrations throughout its 214 pages.

When you see Green’s work you might mistakenly dismiss it as being simply a collection of literal images. A man here casts his fishing net, a woman here dances in a bright dress… Nothing particularly groundbreaking, right? However, there is a system of code within the works that does more to preserve the Gullah culture than simply describing the daily tasks of the people. Art is able to convey several layers of meaning in a single moment. Its language in many ways is far more efficient than words.

For example, when you look at portraits of people in Green’s paintings you will note that you are never able to make eye contact with the subject in the scene. This is not Green trying to cash in on an artistic gimmick. Among the Gullah it is taboo to look into someone’s eyes, especially an outsider’s. “Old African beliefs teach that looking into a person’s eyes gives you access to that person’s soul,” says Green. The Gullah avert or lower their eyes, not out of shame or despondency, but out of self defense. This nuance, to name only one, is subtly documented in Green’s paintings.


Green’s work embodies the soul searching that many LGBT people face throughout their lives.

Given that the Gullah are not cocooned within Old Testament strictures pertaining to sexuality, not only is race unimportant to them, but a person’s preferences are not held to be of any particular interest either. Pageantry and flirtation are important parts of social interaction, and Green says that “Gullah see sexuality as a beautiful way to view others. There is total respect for the other, so sexual violence is rare.” He explains that “people who practice the older religions of the world generally accept that same-sex attraction and alternative gender expression have always existed, and those people are given no less respect than anyone else.” The term Green used to describe LGBT people was a remarkably poetic one: natural people.

In many matriarchal cultures “natural people” are afforded a place of respect. They are seen as embodying both the Masculine and the Feminine in a single body, and often serve as cultural repositories or spiritual gurus. Green notes that when the “natural people” of an indigenous culture are exterminated (as often happened in those


This oil on masonite painting entitled ‘Amadeus V’ carries a bright color pallette.

areas colonized by Europeans — the berdache priests of the Native American cultures being one example) that culture “becomes a police state lacking aesthetic and cultural refinement. By destroying the shamans a people lose their history, pageantry, art and unique sense of self — without ‘natural people’ an entire people implode.”

Green was never made to feel ostracized for being himself. His latent gifts were nourished, and he was encouraged by the Elders to develop into a rabidly creative soul. He was nurtured although everyone “recognized who I was from a very early age. The Elders foresaw my coming, and they prepared for me.”

As an artist Green’s imagery focuses on his memories of his Gullah upbringing. As a humanitarian he focuses on philanthropy, human rights and intercultural education. Although


Coastal imagery is highlighted in ‘Mullet Friday,’ an original lithography.

his works are not homoerotic in nature they still have value for the LGBT community because as a “natural person” Green is invested in using his talents to seek equality and dignity for all people. His work is seen around the world, and its message speaks to people of many backgrounds. He is not “only” an artist — Jonathan Green is an ambassador of humanity with an international audience.

— Jonathan Green’s “Seeking” will be displayed at Charleston’s Gibbes Museum of Art during the first week of March 2008. There will be a week-long conference for discussion of the work, local arts organizations, church communities and museums will be involved in a day-long pageant as well. The installation will last several weeks. Visit www.jonathangreenstudios.com for more details.


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