Artist exhibits Harriet Tubman-inspired work at The Rice Museum in Georgetown

2 Oct

Artist exhibits Harriet Tubman-inspired work at The Rice Museum in Georgetown

Natalie Daise, a renowned professional storyteller and self-taught artist, says the catalyst for her new exhibit at The Rice Museum in Georgetown was the impending arrival of a Harriet Tubman sculpture titled, “Journey to Freedom,” on South Carolina’s Hammock Coast.

Wesley Wofford sculpture of Tubman, the American abolitionist born into slavery as Araminta Ross, arrived at Joseph Rainey Park on Front Street in Georgetown at the beginning of August. It will remain there until the end of October when it will be moved to Brookgreen Gardens until the end of December.

Natalie Daise stands with two paintings from her “Icons of Freedom” collection, which is part of her “Visions of Freedom” exhibit at the Rice Museum Prevost Gallery. (Photo provided by Natalie Daise)

Titled “Visions of Freedom,” the Daise exhibit is on display now through Nov. 7 at the Rice Museum’s Prevost Gallery.

“It’s always good to expand one’s view of the world – to alter one’s perspective,” Daise said. “Looking at these images, I want folks to honor the humanity and the holiness of the subjects. I want them to find the reflection of that in themselves and to just be in awe of what an amazing woman Araminta Ross / Harriet Tubman was.”

Daise was born and raised in Rochester, New York, but lived most of her adult life in Beaufort County before moving to Georgetown. She is best-known for being a co-star with her husband, Ron Daise, on “Gullah Gullah Island,” an American musical children’s television series celebrating the culture and language of enslaved Africans that was on the Nickelodeon network from 1994 to 1998. (Read an interview with the Daises about the TV show here.)

More recently, she has created a one-woman show titled, “Becoming Harriet Tubman,” which she performed at the Winyah Auditorium in Georgetown on Sept. 16. Tubman has been a big influence in her life, she said.

“I have held the greatest respect for Harriet Tubman for many years, having followed her from central New York to South Carolina (in a way),” Daise said.

This painting is one of five in this exhibit that are in her series, “The Apparition of Saint Harriet.” (Photo provided by Natalie Daise)

“The research that went into the creation of that show caused my respect and appreciation for Harriet Tubman to only deepen,” she said. “She has become my patron saint.”

She began a series of paintings, “The Apparition of Saint Harriet” in 2015, imagining what it would be like if Tubman were to appear in various places and to various people. Five of the paintings in that series are now on display at The Rice Museum.

“Harriet dedicated her very life to the pursuit of freedom, and it meant everything to her that her family was safe, that their needs were met, and she wanted that for everyone,” Daise said. “That is what I want, too. I thought about the struggle to attain that goal, and what that meant for me, as I created the pieces that are in this exhibit.”

Daise said she has been creating artwork as long as she can remember.

“I’ve been making art most of my life, from drawing pictures for the other children in my kindergarten class, to painting furniture and sewing clothes for my family early in my marriage,” Daise said. “I began showing my work in 2010.” 

Her artwork is an extension of her love of storytelling.

“My paintings and multi-media art arise from the oral tradition,” Daise said. “I explore the continuum of storytelling through the use of various mediums, surfaces, and natural and found materials, allowing the hand and eye to move a story into a place deeper, perhaps, than sound.”

Much of Daise’s work explores the rich traditions of the African American and Gullah Geechee communities that nurture her creativity, she said, as well as the process by which creative action shapes the communities themselves. This is exemplified by her use of food in her artwork.

‘Goldfinch at Elmina’ was inspired by her recent trip to a slave dungeon on the coast of Ghana in West Africa. (Photo provided by Natalie Daise)

“The inclusion of collard greens in my work is a way of connecting to my family of origin through the simplicity of images that evoke the meals provided by the work of our own hands,” she said. “It also opens the door to explore the ways community nurtures and supports us.”

When asked to describe some of her paintings in The Rice Museum exhibit, she chose a few of her favorites.

“ ’Saint Harriet in Indigo’ imagines an elderly Harriet draped in textured indigo textiles, her hands a deep shade of blue and surrounded by this magical color that not only was a major cash crop here in the Lowcountry, but has an international history, from Africa to Japan to Turkey and beyond,” Daise said.

She said ‘Goldfinch at Elmina’ was inspired by her recent trip to a slave dungeon on the coast of Ghana in West Africa.

“Horrific things happened there, and the remnants remain, and yet, as I was leaving, I saw three schoolgirls, free African girls, resting on the stairs,” she said. “Me, a free descendant of enslaved people leaving of my own free will. Them, the descendants of those left behind. And the juxtaposition of those stories continues to reverberate.  The sense of freedom that birds wings seem to give them is, perhaps, the through-line of that story.”

Daise said “Freedom Icon: Andrew Rodrigues” was painted to honor the late Mr. Rodrigues, who co-founded and operated The Gullah Museum in Georgetown with his wife, Bunny.

“He was a fount of information and wisdom, and I wanted the paintings in the Icons of Freedom series to reflect the religious icons we are familiar with,” Daise said.

Other paintings in that series honor Mariam Makeba, a South African singer and activist; Janie Hunter, an American singer and storyteller who famously worked to preserve Gullah in her home of Johns Island, in Beaufort County, South Carolina; and Nina Simone, the Tryon, North Carolina, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee who rose to international stardom as an award-winning singer, songwriter and activist.

“’Saint Harriet in Indigo’ imagines an elderly Harriet draped in textured indigo textiles, her hands a deep shade of blue and surrounded by this magical color. (Photo provided by Natalie Daise)

“A painting of my daughter, Sara Makeba, is included among them as she is a powerful force for personal freedom,” Daise said. “Currently there are six paintings in this series, and all are on view in this exhibit.”

Art and history professionals who have worked with Daise say she is a unique talent. Simon Keith Lewis, a professor of African and Third World Literature at the College of Charleston, said he has been a big fan of Daise since her time on “Gullah Gullah Island,” which his children loved.

“That was a great show; like Sesame Street it managed to be highly entertaining and beautifully kid-oriented while at the same time doing tremendously valuable cultural work,” Lewis said.

Recently, he was “absolutely thrilled” when Daise accepted his invitation to design a mural for the Septima Clark Auditorium at the College of Charleston.

“Natalie produced an absolutely spectacular design using her image of Septima Clark as ‘Saint Septima’ — complete with sweetgrass halo — that has totally transformed what had previously been a dull functional space into something vibrant and truly inspiring,” Lewis said.

Ramon Jackson, curator of African American History and Culture at the South Carolina State Museum, said he met Daise during a teacher’s workshop sponsored by the South Carolina African American Heritage Commission in 2019. 

“She masterfully captured the attention of the group of teachers invited to St. Helena Island while regaling them with stories and songs drawn from her deep understanding of Gullah history and culture,” Jackson said. “Admittedly, I was too starstruck to say much at the time, but I marveled at her ability to joyfully engage and inspire people of all ages and backgrounds.” 

He said he has since had an opportunity to reconnect with Daise as part of his ongoing work as curator.

Daise works on a painting in her home studio. (Photo provided by Natalie Daise)

“Love, family, culture, and community are at the heart of everything Natalie Daise has done throughout her career,” Jackson said. “Mrs. Daise is not only a trailblazer but has found ways to use her creativity to help others find the courage to tell their own stories, define their purpose, and build community.  She, like Harriet Tubman, exemplifies the limitlessness of life’s possibilities when one is truly free.” 

Daise urges people to check out her exhibit at The Rice Museum Prevost Gallery.

“I hope folk will stop in the Rice Museum and see all the pieces I’ve included,” she said. “There was so much joy and gratitude in the creation of the pieces, and I hope folks will feel that.”

Daise has a children’s book set to be released on Oct. 10. She wrote and illustrated “Okra Stew: A Gullah Geechee Family Celebration.” It is published by Macmillan Publishing. The first book signing will be at The Rice Museum on Oct. 14. Here is a link:

The Rice Museum’s Prevost Gallery is located at 633 Front St. in Georgetown. It is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. For more information, call the museum at 843-546-7423.

To celebrate the life and legacy of Harriet Tubman, the Gullah Geechee Chamber of Commerce will host an Artisan & Creator Village on Saturday, Oct. 7, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on the grounds of the Joseph Hayne Rainey Park. The event will feature a diverse range of artists, including Gullah Geechee creators.

By Clayton Stairs/tourism manager for the Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce and South Carolina’s Hammock Coast

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter and never miss what's happening on South Carolina's Hammock Coast!