Filed Under African American

The Unveiling of “Saint Septima”

African American Icon

As a tribute to Clark’s life, a 30-foot mural was installed in 2023 beside the Septima Clark Auditorium. The mural, based on Natalie Daise’s “Saint Septima with Carolina Jasmine,” is also a call to action.

Sweetgrass and Carolina jasmine let us know that we are, indeed, in the Lowcountry. But the presence of Septima Poinsette Clark—composed, serene, contemplative—now in the halls of the College of Charleston’s Education Center reminds us of something more profound: our moral imperative to pick up the mantle of the yet-unfinished freedom struggle, both in the Lowcountry and in the world writ large. The new mural of Septima Clark, installed by the Committee on Commemoration and Landscapes in February 2023, celebrates her work as an educator and civil rights organizer, but it also calls for us to follow in her footsteps and be better for it.

I recently spoke to Natalie Daise, the artist who designed the mural that now graces the Education Center’s walls. She told me that she had kept a copy of Brian Lanker’s book, I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America, for years before Lanker’s stunning photograph of Clark, which appears on the book’s cover, inspired the first portrait in her Sweetgrass Saints series: “Saint Septima.” Daise’s portraits in acrylic and gold leaf honor African American icons in the Lowcountry, from Septima Clark and Robert Smalls to Harriet Tubman and Charlotte Forten. Behind each icon Daise paints halos of woven sweetgrass, and the portraits are adorned with starlit skies, doves mid-flight, and flowers that cascade from the heavens. These are saints, not merely in the Catholic sense of the word, but because of their moral stands against oppression—the path to liberation was not easy (far from it), but it was righteous.

Daise gravitates to painting portraits out of a love for hearing and telling stories: “so many stories are stored in the fold of an eyelid and the curve of a lip. And I love hands—how they store potential energy that might spring any moment into action.” In “Saint Septima,” Daise captures the depths of Clark’s grace and power—her chin lightly rests on her fingertips, her head is held high, her eyes look to what is coming up ahead with the kind of quiet resolve that embodies what James Baldwin once told Nikki Giovanni: “What you have to do is make it possible for others to live. You know, that’s the only reason to be here.” Each of Daise’s brushstrokes felt, she said, “like meditation,” a testament to her sensibilities as an artist but also her admiration and gratitude for her ancestors who made it possible for her to live, in the deepest sense of what it means to live and to be.

When I first saw Lanker’s photograph of Clark and then Daise’s painting and mural, I thought about Kara Walker’s art, in particular her disturbing, large-scale installations of scenes from the antebellum South rendered in black silhouettes. This resonance was merely a matter of form, however. Walker’s silhouettes are, as she puts it, a “blank space that you [can] project your desires into.” Though Lanker and Daise depict Clark in profile, unlike Walker’s silhouettes, many of which are also done in profile, Clark is no empty vessel or black void. Clark refuses that void. She, in her quiet dignity, lets us know unequivocally who she is and the legacy she has left to us. She inspires us to imagine a more just and beautiful world. She shows us that we can dismantle systems of oppression that harm so many people for the benefit of the most powerful among us. For this reason, the installation of this new mural is not merely a cosmetic change to the campus. It is not just a thing of beauty. It is a vital and necessary reminder of what we, as a campus, as a nation, as citizens of the world, can become.

Images

Mural, “Saint Septima,” Education Center Atrium, College of Charleston.
Mural, “Saint Septima,” Education Center Atrium, College of Charleston. In 2023, this mural was installed beside the Septima Poinsette Clark Memorial Auditorium by the Committee on Commemoration and Landscapes. Artist Natalie Daise adapted her portrait, “Saint Septima with Carolina Jasmine” into a mural for this space. The repeated heart shape in the mural’s background is a Sankofa, an Adinkra symbol. The Sankofa and the sweetgrass basket in this mural are also incorporated in the emblem used by C of C’s Committee on Commemoration and Landscapes. Creator: Catie Cleveland, College of Charleston.
Natalie Daise, 2023.
Natalie Daise, 2023. Artist Natalie Daise with a copy of her original portrait, “Saint Septima with Carolina Jasmine,” and Brian Lanker’s 1989 book, I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America. A print of the photograph is in the collection of the Avery Research Center. More of Lanker’s photographs are exhibited by the Smithsonian Institute. Creator: Catie Cleveland, College of Charleston.
Natalie Daise in front of mural “Saint Septima,” 2023.
Natalie Daise in front of mural “Saint Septima,” 2023. Artist Natalie Daise stands in front of a mural she designed for the atrium of the Education Center at the College of Charleston, next to the Septima Poinsette Clark Auditorium. The mural was commissioned as part of the 2023 installation honoring Clark by the College of Charleston’s Committee on Commemoration and Landscapes. The quotation in the mural is from a speech Clark delivered at Antioch College in 1970. Creator: Catie Cleveland, College of Charleston.
Septima Clark quotation used on “Saint Septima” mural.
Septima Clark quotation used on “Saint Septima” mural. The mural “Saint Septima” in the Education Center of the College of Charleston quotes from a speech Septima Clark delivered at Antioch College in 1970 entitled “The Challenge to Black and White.” Clark’s handwritten speech is in the Septima Clark Collection at the College of Charleston. The quotation on the mural reads, “I believe unconditionally in the ability of people to respond when they are told the truth. We need to be taught to study rather than to believe, to inquire rather than to affirm.” Source: Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, College of Charleston, Charleston, SC.
Emblem for the Committee on Commemoration and Landscapes.
Emblem for the Committee on Commemoration and Landscapes. This emblem incorporates patterns found on the C of C campus and in Charleston, in ornamental ironwork created by both African and European artisans. The outer circle reflects sweetgrass basket-making traditions practiced by indigenous and African American people. The heart shape in the pattern is a Sankofa, an Adinkra symbol. In the language of the Akan people of Ghana, Sankofa means “Return and Fetch It,” reflecting the Akan proverb “Se wo were fin a wosankofa a yenki,” or, “it is not a taboo to return to fetch something that you forgot earlier on.” This concept is echoed in the motto on the CCL emblem, “Learning from the Past.” The Committee on Commemoration and Landscapes was formed by President Andrew Hsu in 2021 and consists of faculty, students, and staff who have volunteered their service. The committee’s charge is “to make recommendations for interpretive signage on campus that presents complete and accurate information about the College, and that communicates our institution’s commitment to truth-telling and our 21st century values of diversity, equity and inclusion.” Creator: College of Charleston.

Location

25 St. Philip St.

Metadata

Mari Crabtree, “The Unveiling of “Saint Septima”,” Discovering Our Past: College of Charleston Histories, accessed March 2, 2024, https://discovering.cofc.edu/items/show/68.