Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Mixing It Up at Spoleto: Annual Festival Shaping Up to Be One of the Most Diverse Events on the Arts Calendar

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Mixing It Up at Spoleto: Annual Festival Shaping Up to Be One of the Most Diverse Events on the Arts Calendar

Article excerpt


One of the most anticipated events on the arts calendar--the Spoleto Festival USA, now in its 27th year in Charleston, S.C.,--also seems to be evolving into one of the most diverse, with African American, South American and Asian acts generously sprinkled throughout the three-week carnival of classical and jazz music, dance, theater, opera, visual arts and multimedia events. According to Spoleto officials, 85,000 people visit Charleston during the festival.

"This year the program was particularly diverse for a variety of reasons--for the most part because things just worked out that way," says Nigel Redden, the festival's general director. "But we're very pleased in terms of the variety of the festival--and not just the variety, but the way in which things seemed to fit."

For example, conceptual artist, writer and musician Paul D. Miller, a.k.a. "DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid," was attractive not just because his work is provocative and original, but also because his highly contemporary "remixing" of the 1915 film "Birth of a Nation," stood as a sharp contrast to the festival's period piece: "The Peony Pavilion," a 400-year-old masterpiece from the Ming Dynasty, performed in traditional kunju style, a highly formalized singing, dancing and pantomime Chinese opera. So, too, did playwright Carlyle Brown's "The Fula from America: An African Journey" provide an interesting counterpoint to another one-man show, Brian Lipson's "A Large Attendance in the Antechamber," a satirical take on the life of the founder of eugenics, Sir Francis Gallon.

In all these pieces, notes Redden, "the issues of identity are central--God knows an enormous amount of art has been devoted to that sort of exploration, and the interesting thing about all this searching for identity is that it's found in so many different forms. Indeed, one of the reasons for going to a festival, any festival, is to see that exploration from as wide a perspective as possible."


Such explorations of identity can take the artists involved down strange and winding paths. For example, Dr. Leo Twiggs, one of the leading visual artists of the post-1945 generation, and founder of the art department at South Carolina State University, which until his tenure was the only state university in the South without one, created a sensation in the 1970s with his "Commemoration" series, which addressed the Confederate flag from a surprising perspective--as an artifact of African American heritage.

"In the South," explains Twiggs, "the flag is a symbol that many African Americas love to hate, that many Whites love to remember."

But that's not all there is to the story, he says. "The South is such an interesting place, and Charleston is particularly interesting for African Americans, because Charleston is the place where our ancestors began their long journey."

Twiggs says that he became fascinated with the flag as a part of that journey, though, in his subtle fabric paintings, it can appear moldering and tattered, like a moth-eaten fragment from a trunk in some latter-day Confederate's attic--or with the faces and figures of African American elders and children looming above or below, providing a mute commentary on the symbol's meaning.

In the 40-year retrospective on display at Charleston's Gibbes Museum of Art through early August, it's clear that there's a storytelling impulse at the heart of Twiggs' work. He works in series--there's a "We Have Known Rivers" series inspired by the Langston Hughes poem and the South Carolina landscape. Others have been inspired by natural phenomena such as Hurricane Hugo or culture and family: the blues, his mother, the Bible.

He works in batik a popular method of dyeing fabric using removable wax. But there's no comparison between Twiggs' magical, emotionally resonant batik paintings and the scarves one buys off the street. …

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