Space and time collapse as artist Sheldon Scott revisits his enslaved ancestor’s trauma of labor in his video Portrait, number 1 man (day clean ta sun down), 2018. Rock singer-songwriter and composer Tamar-kali scores the video’s evocative soundtrack and filmmaker and interdisciplinary artist Jon-Sesrie Goff creates an intertemporal atmosphere in his cinematography and editing work for Scott’s durational performance.
Scott’s performance was filmed continually over 13 hours in one day, without a break, to reflect the span of a day’s labor from “day clean” (first light) to dark. Here he is the solitary protagonist, revisiting a site of exploitation but disrupting the expectations put upon the Black male person’s body. In the accompanying exhibition text, Scott refers to himself in performance as “the body.” This project reimagines the forced labor of his ancestors as he hand-processes individual grains of rice, slowly and lovingly. The performance was produced at the South Carolina rice plantation site where his ancestors had been enslaved, which has since been redeveloped as Brookgreen Gardens.
From 1671–1808, neighboring Charleston had received 40 percent of the nation’s African captives, with West Africans being prioritized for their knowledge of rice cultivation, establishing a successful local rice plantation economy (1). The descendants of those enslaved at plantations on the southern Atlantic coast and Sea Island comprise the Gullah Geechee culture, people with their own unique Creole language and foodways (2). Sheldon Scott, Tamar-kali, and Jon-Sesrie Goff identify with Gullah and Gullah Geechee heritage and address those histories in their other creative works as well (3).
Sheldon Scott, a former practicing psychotherapist, has described the strategies employed in Portrait, number 1 man (day clean ta sun down) as cathartic and meditative, acknowledging in a conversation with Ogden curator Bradley Sumrall the problematics with employing psychotherapy theory born of colonized infrastructure to interrogate slavery as another colonized infrastructure born of white supremacy (4). Scott’s analytical strategies are leveraged by his background as a storyteller, specifically a contemporary griot, calling upon itinerant West African storytelling modalities as he “brings” a story into view. These are the endurance-based performances designed to break down, to fail; resolution is to be located in the reckoning that a situation is humanly unsustainable (5).
This work was on view at and acquired by the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans, Louisiana, earlier this year. The significance of Scott’s video being displayed in another port city instrumental to the slave trade was heightened as its installation came on the tails of an attempt by Louisiana legislators to make involuntary servitude illegal—yes, you read that right—specifically as to abolish prison labor. The bill did not pass (6).
The video functions somewhere between recall and meditation rather than a chronological timeline that privileges the hero’s narrative journey and resolution. Yes, it spans the day, but the sequence restarts unexpectedly, emerging from a shadowy first light. The room containing the video is darkly lit, appearing to shift with different periods of the video’s day. Within that cerebral space, Tamar-kali gives an internal/external soundscape of plucking violin and single tambourine. Like Goff’s fixed, mostly frontal perspective of subject and action, Tamar-kali’s score is abstracted and pared-down, violin evoking stressed synapses and a tambourine that both drives and embodies a gait that wavers with exhaustion, simultaneously demanding more.
Ephemera such as slave chattel ledgers, photos of enslaved Black people, and other documents relating to the brutality of slave life in America interrupt Scott’s performance on the screen. If you have ever tried to reconcile a traumatic experience, this may be familiar—a rotation of events in sections, with micro gestures divided by related imagery in your mind’s eye to try to explain why this has happened; you may picture photographs of loved ones. At this moment, New Orleans survivors of hurricanes Katrina and/or Ida recount the trauma of powerlessness felt during and after those storms; one of the legacies of slavery is reflected in the racial wealth divide due to systemic racism and prejudice, creating an even more vulnerable populace here (7).
Occasionally the screen splits as the artist shares space with old photographs of Black persons we assume to have been enslaved. While there is damage to some documents, names of the enslaved, and mere descriptives or gender, the names of their owners are still visible. These interspersed images linger so that if you look away briefly, chances are you will still have to see it when you look back. A diagram circulated for the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade demonstrating how to efficiently pack live human beings as chattel inventory within a slave ship cuts away to the humanity of Scott’s gentle peeling of the hull (winnowing) off each tiny individual grain of rice. The rendered people shackled down in rows in that diagram could also be grains of rice, just products to be consumed. All paperwork and photos upon the screen lead back to this rumination—Scott kneeling in a former rice field under live oaks, hands toiling, toiling, toiling. Each grain is honored in a gentle cleansing ritual befitting a sentient being, then laid down gently into a basket with the others to be later consumed, thereby prolonging the labor that Scott’s own body endures as the burden of this workday goes on, subject to the elements.
Stills from Sheldon Scott, Portrait, number 1 man (day clean ta sun down), 2018, performance with rice and HD video, 12:20 min., soundtrack by Tamar-kali, filmed by Jon-Sesrie Goff, installation view at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, with rice, burlap, pedestal (photo: Veronica Cross)
This gentle, intentional act of winnowing rice grains by hand was not the method employed on the plantations. The actual process involved putting rice into flat winnowing baskets and tossing the grains into the air, thereby letting wind and gravity remove the chaffs. This task was also gender-specific to women (5). Sheldon Scott’s slowed-down reinterpretation of “women’s work” is a rejection of the demands on the body of the Black male enslaved person—to be definitively masculine (read: straight) yet subservient; it is a flagrant f-you of capitalist productivity. Portrait, number 1 man (day clean ta sun down), does not bear theatrics of the good ol’ days reenactments. Again, look at his respectable suit, and his elegantly coiffed hair. His existence and self-actualization are successes in a machine that eats its young. Scott seeks catharsis as the solo performer, both embodying and disidentifying with the slave laborer as subject/object of white supremacy in the repetitive motions of industry.
The upright rectangular installation of the video’s monitor prioritizes and activates Scott’s personage, lest the viewer be lulled into any idyllic reading of the landscape. This screen is placed atop a horizontal base covered in a pile of hulled rice atop burlap. While onscreen Scott transforms to iconic status upon this pedestal, kneeling in surrender and labor, the base’s coffin-like form portends the violence of life as human chattel. The goal of the performance is to process a total weight of rice equal to the artist’s body, both as commodities. But we don’t get to witness that end game; it is a sick equation always in motion. And when the artist gazes directly back at the camera (both a no-no in the realms of “fourth wall” performance strategies and a signal of great disrespect to an authoritarian), you, the viewer, are summoned to identify your own role within this inhumane/human narrative.
Stills from Sheldon Scott, Portrait, number 1 man (day clean ta sun down), 2018, performance with rice and HD video, 12:20 min., soundtrack by Tamar-kali, filmed by Jon-Sesrie Goff, installation view at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, with rice, burlap, pedestal (photo: Veronica Cross).
I visited this installation five times. Sheldon Scott is always winnowing rice, kneeling, and time of day is indicated by sunlight, shadow, the artist’s sweat, visitations and songs of various insects and birds, the body language of determination, and exhaustion. Jon-Sesrie Goff’s camerawork is always steady, his close-ups intentional and respectful to show us the sweetness of ants working as they do, the sweetgrass basket (another West African convention) abundant with rice, tired hands covered in bran flecks, beads of sweat on Scott’s forehead, and visible agony. Tamar-kali is always framing the emotional narrative, the tambourine both driver and barometer of energies.
While this work was on view at the museum, I often thought about that room while I was drawing, working at my job, reading, or whatever. Sheldon Scott was still expected to perform the labor of enslaved Black people on that screen regardless if he was tired, hungry, or over it. That was a powerful meditation for me as a viewer, a middle-aged white lady with some agency associated with my race, and yet also realizing that in real life, it is likely that someone in the Louisiana State Penitentiary (aka Angola, itself a former plantation) in the year 2021, statistically most likely a Black prisoner, is being forced to work against their will (8). And if you didn’t already know, “number one man” is police code for Black male.
1. Nic Butler, “The End of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade,” Charleston Public Library, 26 Jan., 2018.
2. “The Gullah Geechee People,” Gullah Geechee Heritage Corridor Commission.
4. Sheldon Scott and Bradley Sumrall, “Curated conversation with Sheldon Scott and Bradley Sumrall,” 1 Apr. 2021, Ogden Museum of Southern Art.
5. Sheldon Scott and Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, “Respectability Performance,” Transition 120, You Are Next (2016): 79–92.
6. Blake Paterson, “Slavery in Louisiana’s Prisons? This Lawmaker Wants Voters to Outlaw Forced Labor for Good,” The Advocate, 8 Apr. 2021.
7. Asante-Muhammad, Dedrick, “The Racial Wealth Divide in New Orleans,” Racial Wealth Divide Initiative.
8. Note: a 2010 account shows that 76 percent of prisoners were Black, “Louisiana State Penitentiary,” Wikipedia.
Image at top: still from Sheldon Scott, Portrait, number 1 man (day clean ta sun down), 2018, Performance with rice and HD video, 12:20 min., soundtrack by Tamar-kali, filmed by Jon-Sesrie Goff, installation view at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, rice, burlap, pedestal (photo: Veronica Cross).