The story of Judith, a 14-year-old slave girl who was hanged for killing her master’s three children on the Salubria plantation in Oxon Hill in 1834, is only one of the stories unfolding in a series of collages in Brentwood.
Called “A Struggle for Dignity: An Artistic Exploration of Slavery and Emancipation,” the collection of 23 collages was created by Upper Marlboro artist Curtis G. Woody.
“Her story really stuck with me, because slavery was such a horrible thing that it made a child kill other children,” says Woody about his piece called “Mad Enough to Kill: Resistance on the Plantation.”
The exhibit, which starts with “Unvarnished Truth,” is arranged in chronological order, telling the story of African-Americans living in Prince George’s County from the time they first arrived as indentured servants in the 1640s up to 1900.
“I thought the project was really significant, because nothing’s been done that tells that story in such a complete artistic way,” says exhibit curator Jon West-Bey.
In addition to the panel about Judith, there also are pieces about armed revolts, escaping to freedom and fighting in the Union army.
“You can’t say all slaves reacted the same way — there were different ways that people persevered,” West-Bey says about the exhibit, which will be on view to Oct. 27 at Gallery 110 at the Gateway Arts Center, part of the Prince George’s African American Museum and Cultural Center.
Woody says he got the idea for doing the series, which he describes as “quilt paintings,” because “nothing had been done of that size about slavery in Prince George’s County.”
“It was a project that I wanted to do,” says Woody, who made use of various paints, including acrylics and watercolors, along with copies of old newspaper stories and vintage photographs, beads and rope.
He says he calls them “quilt paintings,” because he assembled the collages using mat board cut into 4-inch squares.
He treats each square like a mini-painting, then assembles them six across and six down to form the final collage
“I pieced them together like a quilt,” he says.
The “A Struggle for Dignity” project took him nine months, including extensive research using the Sojourner Truth collection at the Oxon Hill library, the Maryland State Archives, the National Archives and the Library of Congress.
Woody says he also received some help from the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.
“I could have been working on this for years, there was so much information,” says Woody, who also tells the story of the Plummer family, a member of which was able to chronicle his experiences a rare occurrence after another slave taught him to read and write.
Born in 1819 on a plantation in Upper Marlboro, Adam Francis Plummer moved to the Riversdale plantation in what is now Riverdale.
In 1841 he started a journal that he kept until he died in 1905, which was continued by his descendants.
“It’s rare for an African-American family to tell the story of the family because of the nature of slavery,” West-Bey says.
Woody says he learned from his research a lot about the variety of African-American experiences in the county in the 18th and 19th centuries.
“One of the Jesuits who founded Georgetown University had a big farm in Beltsville and owned a number of slaves,” Woody says. “The slaves sued him for their freedom, but they lost the suit and ran way.
“Slavery was such a weird kind of industry, with free Africans living at the same time as slaves,” he says. “I’m just fascinated with the whole system and how people lived.”
To help finance the work, Woody says he won a $2,750 grant from the Prince George’s Arts and Humanities Council and he wants to apply for another grant to continue the chronology next year.
After Gallery 110, the exhibit is expected to move to the Oxon Hill library and ultimately to a permanent spot, says Woody, who hopes it will be purchased and kept intact.
West-Bey says Woody has already pledged to donate one of the collages to the museum, which would like to house the entire collection.
“We’d love to have it as a permanent installation,” says West-Bey, who says purchasing the series from Woody is presently “up in the air.”
In the meantime, West-Bey says the exhibit “needs to be seen by as many people as possible” because it is unique, with its focus being on African-Americans living in Prince George’s County.
“You can’t get that kind of story anywhere else,” says West-Bey, noting that since its opening on July 13, the exhibit has drawn school groups and the general public.
“We’ve definitely seen an increase in foot traffic, says West-Bey, who says the details and complexity of the collages also have “sparked a different kind of discussion about slavery” because of its many insights into how people lived.
“It’s a story that affected so many people,” he says.