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“Ancestor of the Land” spotlights life and times of black farmers

9 mins read

 New exhibit also pays tribute to artist’s father and family farm 

By Mindy Lucas 

The year was 1976 and Bernice and Andy Tate, who lived in New York City at the time, were visiting Bernice’s father on the family farm in Sheldon. 

Wanting to try out his new automatic camera, artist and illustrator Andy Tate took some impromptu photos of his father-in-law, Rufus Daniel Mitchell, working in his fields. 

But an interesting thing happened. The film from that day somehow was never processed and wound up in storage, all but forgotten, until 30 years later when the old roll was re-discovered. 

The husband-wife artist team had moved back to the Lowcountry after retiring in 2006, and after finding the roll in some old boxes, decided to have the film developed.

What they found when the photos came back was simply astonishing.

There in black and white was a perfectly preserved time capsule of Bernice’s father-in-law going about his work on the family farm as if no time had passed at all.

In the more than 30 photos, Mitchell can be seen steering a wooden plow being pulled by a white horse down neatly tilled rows or staring intently into the camera as if preoccupied by thoughts of the day.

When Bernice Tate saw the photos she experienced something of a flashback she said.

Bernice and Andy Tate

“It took me back so many years,” she said. “But it was definitely a ‘wow moment’ and almost brought me to tears.”

The re-discovered photos of life on the family farm eventually inspired the couple to begin thinking about a larger art project that would tell the story not just of Rufus Daniel Mitchell, who died in 1987, but of the black farmer in general.

That led to “Ancestor of the Land” a new exhibit and installation which can soon be viewed at the Mather School Museum, on the campus of the Technical College of the Lowcountry.

The exhibit combines photography and digital art with farming implements to capture and celebrate the life and times of Mitchell and his family and the historic Sheldon farming community.

While the exhibit is meant to be a tribute to Bernice’s father, it also explores various aspects of the Lowcountry and Gullah farming experience.

“He is a metaphor for almost all of the rural Black families in Beaufort County who had children and sent them away and so forth,” said Andy Tate.

As Bernice Mitchell goes on to explain, she was one of nine children who grew up on the small, self-contained farm her father worked to essentially support the family.

“My father was just a hard working man that believed in family and family values and taught us to go out in the world and do what you have to do to make things work,” she said, adding that ironically her mother and father never had any intention of their children becoming farmers.

“Their goal was to educate us and move us on,” she said.

And true to their wishes, all eight of Mitchell’s siblings either earned college degrees or degrees and certifications that took them away from the farm in Sheldon and “out into the greater world,” she said.

“But I grew up on a farm literally, and that I’m proud of,” she said. “I’m just the daughter of a farmer I always tell folks.”

Today, the Tates enjoy supporting the local arts community and working with the Beaufort Arts Council and are known for their own thoughtful, multi-faceted exhibits that do more than provide a mere two-dimensional look at a series of paintings or photographs.

Their exhibits and installations take viewers into an aesthetically rich, fully developed cultural experience that serves to both enlighten or educate as well as entertain on an artistic level.

They were contributors in the fascinating 2019 interactive exhibit “Black Medicine/White Bodies: An Investigation of Yellow Fever Epidemics in Charleston 1854-1871” held at the McKissick Museum in Columbia, and their 2015 exhibit “Doctuh’ Buzzard’s Hoodoo Awakening” at the Beaufort History Museum was colorful, inviting, thought-provoking and unsettling all at the same time.

Other projects include the publishing of several children’s books and educational works under their imprint “Storybooks-4-kids” which features Andy Tate’s fun and inventive illustrations and Bernice Tate’s storytelling skills. The goal of the books is to promote how the power of art and literacy can “engage, educate and empower the next generation of children to be competitive in their global futures,” they say.

A series of impromptu photos taken by artist Andy Tate led to a new exhibit “Ancestor of the Land.” Photo provided. 

“Ancestor of the Land” is timely in that a renewed effort or consciousness has been under way in the last few years in the United States to include small farmers that have been left out of the aid or support process in favor of more large-scale or corporate farming operations.

“Right now, there is a huge, huge effort going on at the national and the state level in terms of rural farming particularly targeting black rural farmers,” Andy Tate said.

In addition, with no end in sight to the demand for organic farming and the growing popularity of locally grown, locally produced agricultural products, small farmers are finally getting the attention and recognition they deserve on those fronts, the Tates said.

“The timing is perfect,” said Bernice Tate. “There is a big thing going on for rural farmers be they Black or White. It’s just the small farmers that we’re looking at.”

What’s more, the Tate’s son, Derek Mitchell Tate, a physician based in Bronxville, N.Y., also got into the family project by providing a grant making it a true family endeavor.

For Bernice Tate, it’s been interesting revisiting her childhood and what was for her, just part of growing up. While the exhibit does have bigger themes and messages, for her it’s still personal.

“It’s a funny thing. When Andy came home some fifty-something years ago to meet my parents, he appreciated what we had more than we appreciated what we had because we wanted to get away from it,” she said laughing, adding that you don’t always appreciate what you have until it’s gone.

“But that was my dad and we’re just trying to honor him,” she said.

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