Charmaine Minniefield’s Exploration of Resistance and Reverence through Indigo, the Ring Shout, and the Praise House
by Trelani Michelle
“We all have the same Grandmother,” a sister in The Gambia told Charmaine Minniefield during her residency in the West African country. Home to a stretch of beaches along its Atlantic coastline and known for its peanut production, The Gambia is also home to Jufureh, the reputed ancestral village of Kunta Kinte from Alex Haley’s bestselling novel-turned-movie, Roots.
While many of us Netflixed and chilled during the quarantine, Charmaine was stranded in The Gambia for 14 months. “It turned into a life-changing experience,” she said. “While there, I used the time to do an artist residency and go deep inside of exploring and searching for evidence of my family’s traditions.” That search included an exploration of indigenous pigments of indigo and a style of dance that registered itself as familiar to her spirit and memory.
These experiences inspired her to create a series of paintings called Indigo Prayers: A Creation Story. According to Emory’s Michael C. Carlos Museum, Indigo Prayers, which the museum is exhibiting until September 11th of this year, “builds on an ongoing exploration of the Ring Shout, an African-American practice of resistance whose West African origins predate enslavement. This full-bodied rhythmic prayer was taught to Minniefield by her great-grandmother. It was performed by her ancestors during enslavement as a way to secretly preserve their African identity.”
The preservation of identity and tradition is an act of resistance, which Charmaine often speaks of. Resistance. We hear that word so often in activist spaces, I wanted to be sure that the meaning wasn’t overlooked or assumed. I asked her what her work resisted. “Erasure,” she answered. “Resisting erasure from revisionist history or contemporary landscape by violence against black and indigenous people.”
Ora Lee Fuqua is Charmaine’s referenced great-grandmother. She was born in Kentucky then migrated to Indiana where Charmaine was born. Most likely, Ora Lee learned the Ring Shout from an elder woman in her own family or community who learned it the exact same way. Through the Pentecostal movement, Ora Lee taught her great-granddaughter Charmaine how to shout.
“The Ring Shout itself was an act of resistance by remembering. For me, it also defied so many levels of efforts of erasure; it just resisted. We could not have drums, because it was a form of communication, so we created wooden floors that were communal drums. And we created a whole new technology for communication with a full body and rhythmic movement and stomping. The floor was the drum and the entire room was the instrument. And we moved counterclockwise in unison and created community and harmony. And we moved with collective intention, and that prayer was a remembrance of ourselves, our African identity. For me, it’s a bridge. In some traditions, it’s called Ashe or Power or Holy Ghost.”
On Sunday, April 24th, Charmaine will be in Harlem at the Apollo Theater Soundstage, sharing the history of the Ring Shout and how she’s integrating the tradition into her artistry. The event is titled Resistance and Healing: Engaging the Ring Shout and includes a film short, a panel discussion, and a performance of the Ring Shout by Creative Outlet Dance Theater of Brooklyn. The program closes with the audience joining in the Ring Shout for a transformative experience.
“I’m looking forward to being in that part of the planet. That power center of black narratives,” Charmaine said, describing Harlem. “The last time I was in New York, I painted a mural of Harriet Tubman on Harriet Tubman Way. We didn’t know that we were painting it on Harriet Tubman Way. The design and selection of the mural location, all of that was all unrelated. And then the neighbors are the ones who came, those who have been pushing back against gentrification in that area, and were excited to see black faces on those walls.
I am grateful for that, and that memory of Harriet Tubman. And we did Maya Angelou and we did Bessie Coleman, on a big vibrant patch of African fabric. And then I went to The Gambia, and it’s just to think about the power of our ancestors into this moment and even as events have taken place that have taken the lives of our people, we invoke their power and their prayer for our lives again. And that’s also the Ring Shout, reminding us of ourselves, our own body.”
The concept of the body can refer to one’s physical anatomy or an organized collective such as the church body or the school body. Leaning on the latter, Charmaine is participating in Sacred Spaces: Belief and Belonging at The Penn Center on St. Helena Island, South Carolina on Saturday, April 30th. Founded in 1862, the Penn Center started off as one of the first schools for black folk in the South. After the school closed in 1948, it became a gathering space for activists like Martin Luther King, Jr. then later a museum and cultural center to preserve the history and culture of the Gullah Geechee community. In addition to Charmaine, panelists also include Natalie Daise, Melissa L. Cooper, and Griffin Lotson.
The Gullah Geechee are the descendants of the West and Central Africans who were forced to work on plantations up the southeast coast, extending from Jacksonville, North Carolina down to Jacksonville, Florida and about 30 miles inward. Gullah Geechee culture was historically most prevalent on the Georgia and South Carolina Sea Islands, including St. Helena. That’s because residents of those islands had to take ferries to get to the mainland, so their ways of life were rather “unbothered” for a few generations longer than those in cities like Charleston and Savannah. Also on St. Helena Island is a powerful structure made of tabby (combined oyster shells, lime, sand, water, and other natural materials). Though there’s a clear entranceway, there’s no door. Arched openings but no windows, nor is there a ceiling. But, despite being built in the mid-1700s by enslaved Gullah Geechee folk, the tabby walls of the chapel remain standing. Charmaine and her team are hoping to be able to activate the space.
“We want to be able to use that space in remembrance,” Charmaine explained. “But we claim it as an act of resistance, because there’s so many elements that were African and it was made by African hands. And we will project the Ring Shout. I’m going with my team, my collaborators, Kimberly Binns, a mixed media artist. She created the projection installation inside of the praise house. She created that projection installation of the first iteration of the praise house on Auburn Avenue [in Atlanta]. We did that as a collaboration, and we’ve been collecting moving images of examples of the ring shout together. And that is what’s compiled, the visual images that will be seen.”
The Ring Shout is a core element of Charmaine’s work—or better said, of her prayers. That’s because, according to her, “I find evidence of my African identity within that. And my foundation and principles of activism inside of that tradition, because of liberation. And I think everyone’s story belongs in that space. That’s what’s really important in my work, because that’s what happened inside of that Ring Shout. A circle, there was no hierarchy. It was a circle. There was harmony and synchronicity and memory, and all of that to me is vast.” Other core elements of her art include the color indigo as well as these one-room structures called Praise Houses.
Indigo Prayers at Emory’s Carlos Museum is being presented along with the Praise Houses that Charmaine and her team erects to honor the gathering places that black folk used to meet and worship during enslavement and for decades after Emancipation, in rural areas especially. The interior of the tiny wooden houses usually consisted of wooden benches along the walls and in the middle with a podium at the front and a few windows to circulate fresh air.
The Michael C. Carlos Museum notes that, “The first in the series of Praise Houses was constructed at Oakland Cemetery in conjunction with Flux Projects to celebrate Juneteenth 2021 and honor the over 800 enslaved people interred in the cemetery’s African American burial grounds.” Once called “Slave Square,” a small plot within the segregated Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta was established in 1850 as burial grounds for enslaved black people. By 1858, more than 800 bodies were buried there. In 1877, the Atlanta City Council ordered the bodies be dug up and reinterred in unmarked graves “over a hill, inside of a swampy area” within the cemetery. In 2016, the cemetery began locating and marking the graves of the 800 souls that had been moved. Then, in 2021, Charmaine and her team built a replica of a Praise House there. “That was an amazing experience,” Charmaine said, “because we were able to watch this structure just rise up over this African American burial ground where our ancestors have been displaced from their first internment…We have the ledger in their name. And, you know, the city has that as trauma.”
Though the installation is now closed, future locations for Praise House installations include downtown Decatur, on Emory’s Atlanta campus, and at South-View Cemetery which was founded in 1886 as an act of reverence as well as resistance against the disrespect black ATLiens were forced to endure during burials. “They had to enter cemeteries through back gates, and even wade through swamps to conduct funeral services,” the cemetery’s website explains. “They were told ‘If you don’t like it, start your own cemetery.’ And so they did. In February 1886, nine courageous black businessmen including Jacob McKinley, George W. Graham, Robert Grant, Charles H. Morgan, John Render and Albert Watts petitioned the State of Georgia for a charter to establish a cemetery. The charter was granted in April of the same year and the legacy of South-View Cemetery began.”
Also in April, of this year at least, for the first time since 1991, Easter, Passover, and Ramadan overlapped. On Friday, April 15th, Christians observed Good Friday to honor Jesus’s crucifixion. That same Friday, Jewish people celebrated Passover to mark the exodus of Israelites from enslavement in Egypt. Muslims continued observing Ramadan, a month-long fast from all food and drink from dawn to sunset as a means of practicing self-restraint and empathizing with the less fortunate. In addition to feeling for those who too often go without basic necessities, there’s also the aspect of community service and giving back.
Charmaine’s organization, The New Freedom Project, is helping feed families in The Gambia during Ramadan. The crowdfunding page reads that, “Given the war in Ukraine, food shortage and rising fuel prices have impacted the economy, doubling the cost of goods for the people of The Gambia. One bag of rice, imported from the US costs the average family more this Ramadan than ever before. We need the support of international allies, families and friends this Ramadan in order to help our communities with what is needed to even break fast during this important time.”
Charmaine’s mother was also an artist. She drew and was an interior designer. Then Charmaine’s uncle used to build little small towns out of found objects. “They were intricate villages that would be on display in my great grandmother’s home,” she said. “Certainly, as I look to what is today, and what is, you know, how I want to exist, or how I want the world to be, and in my right to participate in the creation of that, I think in those terms: art but as a memory. And I find it to be almost an encoded message system, a language that expresses within our cultural identity, infinitely. And I can see myself and my people and our life through memories of it. And that’s why I paint in indigo to just continue to invite that or see that or remember that. And that also becomes what and who I am, too. And so it moves and continues forward. Indigo, my goodness. Blue. Blue.”
Learn more about Resistance and Healing: Engaging the Ring Shout at the Apollo here.
Learn more about Indigo Prayers at the Michael C. Carlos Museum here.
Learn more about Sacred Spaces: Belief and Belonging at the Penn Center here.
Learn more about the Ramadan Food drive here.