At the Bottom of the Atlantic Ocean There’s a Railroad Made of Human Bones

At the Bottom of the Atlantic Ocean There’s a Railroad Made of Human Bones

Adebunmi Gbadebo

After losing her mother, Brenda Ravenell, to COVID-19 in 2020, Adebunmi Gbadebo traveled to the True Blue Plantation, where her ancestors were enslaved in Fort Motte, South Carolina. Connecting with her cousin, Jackie Whitmore, Gbadebo created a memorial for her mother at the True Blue Cemetery, a burial ground for her enslaved family members and their descendants. When she returned to her art studio after these tragedies, Gbadebo found a large circle sheet created from a pool of leftover cotton, hair, water, and indigo dye. For Gbadebo, these dried-together materials had taken a shape that symbolized the cycles of her grief and healing process. Pulling inspiration from Amiri Baraka’s performance of his “Why’s, Y’s, Wise” poem, a long poem in the tradition of the Djalí (Griots), she titled the piece “At the Bottom of the Atlantic Ocean There’s a Railroad Made of Human Bones.”

Returning to her mother’s burial site, which is located next to Gbadebo’s great-great-great-uncle William Ravenel, works with her cousin Benny Haynes to create the “At the Bottom of the Atlantic Ocean There’s a Railroad Made of Human Bones II.” 

For the third textile in this series, Gbadebo used screen prints of Ravenel’s image by incorporating strokes of indigo dye. Her practice blends the use of historically charged materials like cotton and black hair with abstract expressionism to open larger narratives about slavery, Fort Motte, and her family’s history.

Gbadebo invited filmmaker and Express Newark’s Community Media Center director Yvonne Michelle Shirley and CMC member Vanessa Blake to document her creation of these new works in Fort Motte, South Carolina, and her studio in Philadelphia. On their journey, Gbadebo sourced water from the historic Congaree River, once used to transport enslaved peoples and goods, and from Haynes’s private property. The film, “Visions in the Blackness” captures Gbadebo’s first visit to Fort Motte in the winter when she noticed how the cotton harvested there was hauled into large six-foot bales, and the circular form resonated with the shape of the original work she set out to recreate.

Visions in the Blackness from Express Newark on Vimeo.

Adebunmi Gbadebo 

Visions in the Blackness, 2024

Featuring Adebunmi Gbadebo and Benny Haynes, Director: Yvonne Michelle Shirley, Cinematography: Vanessa Blake, Sébastien Denis, Yvonne Michelle Shirley, Producer: Alliyah Allen, Production Coordinator: Brooke Finister, Editor: Stefani Saintonge, Colorist: Kya Lou 

About Adebunmi Gbadebo

Adebunmi Gbadebo (Ah-dae-bu-mee Bha-dae-bo) is a multimedia artist who uses culturally and historically imbued materials to investigate the complexities between land, matter, and memory on various sites of slavery. Centering on deeply resonant materials like indigo dye, soil hand dug from plantations, and human Black hair collected throughout the diaspora, Gbadebo has formed a visual vocabulary entirely her own. The resulting works tend to carry the stories of ancestors, families, and individuals either long overlooked or too closely surveilled. Born in New Jersey and based between Newark and Philadelphia, Gbadebo earned her BFA at the School of Visual Arts, NY, and a certification in Creative Place Keeping at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

Adebunmi’s work in ceramics was recently on exhibition in, Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, a show which predominantly exhibited the work of enslaved peoples, a first in the Met’s history. The show will tour nationally. She is currently a 2022 Pew Fellow and a 2023 Maxwell and Hanrahan Fellow, and Artist in Residence at the Clay Studio in Philadelphia. Gbadebo has been written about in notable publications, including the New York Times, Hyperallergic, Hypebeast, Brooklyn Rail, Forbes, and the American Craft Council magazine. Gbadebo has given talks at various educational and cultural institutions including at the Museum of the African Diaspora, the Metropolitan Museum of Arts, Barnard College, and the Newark Museum of Art.

Gbadebo’s works are included in the permanent collection at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the South Carolina State Museum, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Newark Museum of Art, amongst others. Gbadebo has presented in exhibitions across the  US and internationally at the Dhaka Art Summit, Bangladesh, and the 1-54 African Art fair, London, and will be exhibiting in the Biennale of Sydney (Australia) in 2024.

She served as the Community Engagement Apprentice to Architect Nina Cooke John for the building of the Harriet Tubman Monument built in Newark, NJ, to replace a statue of Christopher Columbus. Gbadebo is currently working with students and faculty at Clemson University to create a sculpture that honors the 667 enslaved and Black laborers who transformed Fort Hill Plantation into Clemson University and whose unmarked burials were recently identified on the campus grounds.

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February 20 - July 19


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