“You don’t find community, you build community in collaboration with others,” is something Zoë Charlton said when introducing her work at the unveiling of The Country A Wilderness Unsubdued (2018) at The Phillips Collection.
The Country A Wilderness Unsubdued is a collage-based mixed-media work on paper. It is anchored by the core of a large, ample Black woman as its foundation. Only the thighs and stomach of the female nude are visible; the chest and head are covered by dense layers of branches and trees. Through the foliage, you can make out small portions of African tribal masks. The piece crescendos with birds flying out of the treetop and up into the air, seemingly chasing or following the lead bird in a kind of release.
When I look at this artwork, I feel a heaviness, the burden that one feels when having to carry the weight of others. The figure is carrying so much weight that she is unable to see clearly. The trees and leaves are lush and rich, thriving even as their weight may be too heavy to hold.
The work takes on a different meaning when I learn that Charlton’s grandmother was its inspiration. She was a Black woman who lived in the south of the United States, in Tallahassee, Florida, a place known for its inequality and racist attitudes toward Black people, especially Black women. She was creative in coming up with ways to afford the land. She sold soup, worked as a domestic servant, and sharecropped the property well into the 1970s. She leaned on her community, and her community leaned on her. What I once viewed as a weight, I now see as fertile ground: the Black woman, who continually makes space for others. The layering of the branches and leaves reminds me of the universal family tree—the future generations that are seeded and grow from the rootstock of one who took a chance. Future generations will thrive because of her ingenuity.
The effort Charlton puts into her community is something I have seen firsthand. While her ethos inspires this work, it is evident in who Charlton is as a person. She is always interested in engaging and connecting; you find yourself leaving her presence more informed and more aware, wanting to share what you have learned. You want to continue to build the community. That is how I feel when engaging with one of her pieces, and when looking at The Country A Wilderness Unsubdued.
Text by Jessica Stafford Davis, adapted from Seeing Differently: The Phillips Collects for a New Century (The Phillips Collection in association with Giles, 2021)