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  • January, 24, 2003
    Hush Harbors
    By Jamie Heberling

    African-American slaves practiced an underground religion - one that was invisible to the eyes of their masters. In the thickets of their cabins, in the woods and beneath the shelters of brush arbors, called hush harbors, the slaves practiced Christianity.
     
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    Ohio University Assistant Professor of Painting, Robert Peppers, is exhibiting his mixed-media interpretation of the slaves' hush harbors until February 8 in the Ohio University Art Gallery at Seigfred Hall. Peppers' installation, titled "Hush Harbors," is a social commentary responding to the African American church burnings in 1996 and the resiliency of the congregations' faith during that tragedy.

    He was inspired to begin the project after a 10-day missionary trip to Esto, S.C in the Spring of 1997. With a team of around 25 Ohio University students, he helped rebuild and refurbish a torched African American church.

    Peppers, an African American himself, was touched by the tremendous amount of faith that guided the church's congregation during the rebuilding project.

    "There were mostly white students working in collaboration with a black congregation. And at the end of each day they would lay beautiful tables and dinners before us. Those black people were a true testament of the resiliency of their Christian faith," said Peppers.

    Following his experience, the artist returned to Athens and began deconstructing pieces from one of his previous exhibitions, "Burnt Offerings," which was an immediate 1996 response to the church burnings - a statement of ignorance and prejudice.

    But after returning from the trip, Peppers felt as though the focus of his next exhibition had to change. He constructed cross sections of the "Burnt Offerings" exhibition, and created 12 six-foot wooden crosses, which were adorned with a collage of broken stained glass.

    "My transformed pieces are intended to resemble relics salvaged from the fires. They represent the notion of faith, the deconstruction of adversity and making it into empowerment through faith," Peppers explained.

    Each of the 12 crosses is symbolic of a different type of sanctuary, and are metaphors for the churches burned. The crosses include representations of seeds, pods, shells, cocoons and sacs. Like the hush harbors, where African American slaves found refuge and safety, the crosses are representative of places where others find solace. The works are metaphors for the church, a safe place, both physically and spiritually.

    The installation, "Hush Harbor," will feature all 12 crosses, as well as an additional element: Peppers plans to place a tree stump in the center of the gallery in order to represent the podium from which the preacher would have told his sermons when the slaves met to worship in the secret hush harbors. The stump, which will be voice activated, will feature the voice of the African American master of musical hybrids, Quincy Jones, singing "Hush, hush, somebody's calling my name," followed by three lines of sermons from James Weldon Johnson.

    The exhibition will run from January 7 to February 8 in Ohio University's Art Gallery in Seigfred Hall. Gallery hours are Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, contact Robert Peppers at peppers@ohio.edu.

     

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