Beginning in 1984, Michael Lomax, who then held the position of Chairman of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners, initiated a significant endeavor. During his tenure, the county’s art budget witnessed a remarkable surge, escalating from $100,000 to an impressive $3.4 million. His vision was to create a signature cultural event in an effort to rival the renowned Spoleto Festival, a yearly cultural extravaganza held in Charleston, South Carolina. Four years later, in 1988, his aspiration was realized with the establishment of the First National Black Arts Festival.
The scale and magnitude of this inaugural festival were breathtaking, encompassing 105 events that unfolded over a bustling nine-day period, featuring the participation of 1,100 artists across various venues throughout the city. Some events were co-presented with the Atlanta Jazz Festival and Kingfest at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change, all taking place concurrently. The festival’s advisory panel comprised luminaries such as Harry Belafonte, Arthur Ashe, Alvin Ailey, Ossie Davis, Danny Glover, Ruby Dee, author Alex Haley, Jesse Jackson, Coretta Scott King, Rep. John Lewis, Wynton Marsalis, all of whom collaborated to create an extensive program celebrating the achievements of Black art, spanning from the Harlem Renaissance to contemporary culture.
The festival featured a new musical by the Tony-winning director of “The Wiz,” a writers’ conference that included luminaries like Maya Angelou, outdoor concerts by pianist Leon Bates in collaboration with the Atlanta Symphony, and an exhibition of puppets from Nigeria and Mali organized by The Center for Puppetry Arts. Additionally, it showcased a new film by Spike Lee, and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre paid homage to Katherine Dunham. Fifteen galleries around the city hosted exhibitions of Black artists, featuring notable figures like Elizabeth Catlett, Hale Woodruff, and Faith Ringgold. This concerted effort laid the foundation for the cultural legacy of Atlanta.
However, while the majority of the artistic work featured in the festival, both in 1988 and subsequent iterations, was temporary, one permanent public work they commissioned stands out: Beverly Buchanan’s Hard Days Work Shack, 1988.
In the wake of her 2016 exhibition Beverly Buchanan—Ruins and Rituals at the Brooklyn Museum, much has been discussed about her “Ruins,” sculpture interventions into the landscape. In 1977, she resettled in Georgia — first Macon, then Athens — where she initiated a series of public art installations commemorated sites of racial injustice and hardship with materials closely associated with the land. Utilizing a construction method most frequently linked to Coastal Gullah-Geechee communities, Buchanan created tombstone-like mounds made of concrete or tabby (the mid-nineteenth century regional composite of lime, sand, and shells). Because these works were moored within the external elements of the landscapes, they often assume the solemn tone of a decaying memorial, a deep-rooted reminder to commemorate the forgotten dead.
These days, I have curators/artists/historians that reach out when coming to Atlanta looking for some recommendations, which inevitably ends with the question: And, how far is Macon? Almost without fail. They aren’t heading there for a tour of The Big House, otherwise known as the Allman Brothers Band Museum. They hope to visit the work Ruins and Rituals, 1979, tucked inside the wooded Arboretum at the Museum of Arts and Sciences in Macon (MAS). What makes her in situ work so special is that there is so little of it that we know about, as so many sculptures have been submerged, washed away, placed deep in the woods, stolen, or left intentionally undocumented in slave graveyards. As a result, many of us treasure hunters repeatedly return to Macon, Darien, and Brunswick, but what so often gets overlooked is Hard Days Work Shack, which, granted, is different but also highly accessible.
In most biographical accounts of Buchanan’s life, there is a notable mention of her father, Walter Buchanan, who was the dean at the School of Agriculture at South Carolina State College in Orangeburg. Throughout her childhood, Buchanan frequently accompanied her father on visits to sharecroppers and tenant farmer lands, sometimes even spending nights there. Often, these farmers lived in the shacks that dot the fields right beside so many well-traveled country highways. There is this romanization that the shacks evoke, thoughts and symbols of simplicity, honest labor, and the close-knit nature of our agricultural history. However, Buchanan aimed to preserve a more accurate story often neglected when speaking of the rural American existence, to encapsulate the essence of a community by depreciating the vestiges of Southern Black heritage. As individual sculptures, they are solitary, unassuming dwellings. Taken in their entirety as a body of work, Buchanan’s shacks speak of collective adversity, knowledge, irreplaceable family bonds, and the resiliency of communal living. All of this came from a patchwork construction of corrugated cardboard, foam core, Georgia heart pine, and little pieces of metal painted in bright colors that echoed the Abstract Expressionist style she trained in.
Though most of her Shacks stood about 20 inches tall, the piece commissioned by the National Black Arts Festival was a bit of a full-sized anomaly. While she made several full-sized shacks throughout her life, this is the only one still standing. The structure of the Hard Days Work Shack is tall and slender, perfectly square at the width of my outstretched arms on all sides. There is a gabled roof, with one side bearing a deeper slope, and the whole sculpture is made from large sheets of corrugated tin. It is painted a deep, rich reddish-brown and embellished with slashes of bright yellow and baby paint. The windows and door have been painted on the surface, as this is as intimate a peek into the owner’s life as we will get.
I’ve long been curious about the location of the sculpture, a pocket-sized patch of grass beside the Studioplex on Auburn building in the Historic Old Fourth Ward. This neighborhood was once the heart of Atlanta. During the era of Jim Crow laws, it thrived as a separate, prosperous downtown thanks to the commercial buildings on Edgewood and Auburn avenues. The majority of employees at The Atlantic Southeastern Compress & Warehouse, which opened in 1905 as a cotton compression and storage facility adjacent to the Southern Railway, were Black. Many of them owned homes in the surrounding area. However, in the 1960s, the neighborhood’s economic decline began with the construction of the 75/85 interstate, which cut through the commercial center of Sweet Auburn. By the time Buchanan installed her sculpture here in 1988, gentrification was already underway. With the BeltLine’s Eastside Trail directly in its backyard, the Old Fourth Ward is in constant flux. This always makes me think of Buchanan’s shack and its chronological ambiguity, serving as a testament to a bygone past and a harbinger of a disordered future. It’s a reminder of the toil that built this city and nation, of those who picked that cotton, worked those fields, and packed that cotton destined for northern delivery. It underscores who owned this warehouse and who benefits from the demographic shifts happening yesterday and tomorrow. Buchanan’s shack condenses time as a way of combatting forgetting.