The themes of past and present, suppression and resistance, surface more subtly in Buchanan’s earliest pieces, which fill the first room of “Ruins and Rituals.” They consist of paintings of black walls and humble concrete sculptures that resemble fragments of forgotten or demolished buildings. The latter, which she called “Frustulas,” are craggy, pocked, and in some cases covered in moss. They were inspired by the decrepit cityscape that surrounded her while she studied and later worked as a public health official in New York and New Jersey in the 1970s, and they are captivating, in the way a ruin happened upon unexpectedly during a walk in the woods might be.
But the most enthralling works on view are wall-scale video projections documenting the outdoor sites where Buchanan installed four concrete earthworks after moving back to Georgia in 1977. There, set in the South and haunted by the history of slavery, Buchanan’s sculptures are powerfully charged. “She really created these almost tombstone-like forms in response to sites that were the subject of historical whitewashing,” explained Burris as our small group was engulfed by a projection showing a concrete form, rooted in the ground and surrounded by waving reeds.
The piece we were looking at is Marsh Ruins (1981), located in coastal Georgia near a commemorated site where Confederate poet Sidney Lanier penned his famous work ‘‘Marshes of Glynn’’(1878). To the east of Buchanan’s work, as a wall label points out, is Saint Simons Island, where a group of Igbo people sold into slavery collectively drowned themselves in 1803. That site, unlike Lanier’s, has no historic marker. In her way, Buchanan made her own.
Even her most personal works bore witness to the people and sites she came to know through her travels, a fact that Burris and McArthur make clear in the central room of the exhibition, where works from the artist’s personal collection join an enthralling array of ephemera, including the artist’s notebooks, snapshots, artist statements, and a parade of business cards. (One of them reads: “beverly buchanan: working artist, good cook, safe driver, datura queen,” datura being a reference to her green thumb and love of flowers). And her exhaustive collection of self-portraits, doodled in bright colors or taken selfie-style with a Polaroid, served as a means of contact with her community—she would send them as postcards to friends.