Bethany Collins (b. 1984) uses language to explore American history and the nuance of racial and national identities. Like Jacob Lawrence, she uses archival research to identify the language of song, spoken word, and coded messages that can uncover a range of American voices and expressions. Learn about Collins’s work, including her installation in Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle. Collins will be in conversation with Mollye Bendell, artist and professor at the University of Maryland.
For her installation, Collins sourced different versions of the popular American patriotic anthem “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” and gathered song sheets for the artist book located in the chapel space. Between the 18th and 20th centuries, American songwriters rewrote the lyrics to the melody of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” (also called “America”) in support of varying American causes, including revolution, temperance, suffrage, abolition, Native sovereignty, and slavery. Collins’s special edition artist book chronicles an idea of America through the history of one song’s varied verses. To create the hymnal, she bound 100 versions of the lyrics together chronologically and then burned away the musical notes with a laser. America: A Hymnal presents a national identity fraught with multiple meanings and contradictions. The versions of the hymn heard inside these walls express differing articulations of what it means to be American. What can the varied verses of this familiar tune tell us about the experiences of the Americans who wrote them?
The wallpaper in the installation is adorned with raised patterns of wildflowers found in the American South and variations of the rose, the national flower of the United States. Beginning in the 19th century, encyclopedias published floriography, flower/word associations, such as Georgia’s wild blue phlox for “Our souls are united,” Florida’s ash tree for “With me you are safe,” and the mulberry for “I shall not survive you.” In Meet me by moonlight, Collins expresses the connections her research revealed between this symbolic language of flowers and its historical usage during the Great Migration. In this 20th-century movement, half the country’s Black population left the rural southern United States for the urban Northeast, Midwest, and West. The population of this mass migration used flower phrases as a way to share covert messages of love, possession, and pain that were otherwise difficult to speak aloud.
IMAGE: Bethany Collins. © 2020 Peabody Essex Museum. Photo by Bob Packert