Spend an hour with Chotsani Elaine Dean and you travel through 400 years of history and art. She leads you into a sprawling discussion of her ceramics and quilts, raw cotton she grows, and her work at a tea plantation, in studios and art galleries, and in her classrooms.
“You can take those materials that are so disparate and come from different parts of the world or different strata of the Earth,” she says of her clays and textiles, “and it becomes something that’s not just functional but visual. It can give you a voice in a way you might not expect.”
A Malawian name meaning “take away,” Chotsani takes from myriad sources and pours it back into her art and pedagogy, which she practices primarily at Anderson University’s South Carolina School of the Arts; she has been assistant professor of art, ceramics and sculpture there since 2014.
During a lengthy Black History Month interview, the 43-year-old artist-professor-student discusses the likes of Sojourner Truth, the escaped slave who grew up speaking Dutch; the abstract expressionist painter Helen Frankenthaler; and Matisse. She recalls the nine months she spent as a Fulbright Scholar on a tea plantation in India in 2012-13. She talks about the history of her hometown.
Dean was born in Hartford, Connecticut. That’s where the Dutch, one of Europe’s leading slave-trading nations then, established a commercial settlement they named Huys de Hope (House of Hope) just 14 years after enslaved African Americans first arrived on America’s shores.
“It’s about coalescing the past, the present and things about the future,” she says of her art. “I’m always positioning myself in terms of what I’m seeing.”
Her pieces illuminate centuries’ worth of history, generally focusing on commodities, their provenance and distribution.
Take, for instance, a ceramic pot called “Memory Basket — ‘transatlantic passage, planted, picked, transformed, sold, traded, sewed, stitched.’” Or a porcelain stoneware vessel that features Sea Island cotton: “from seed to hand, mine.”
Last year, she wanted to establish an artisanal “trading post” of her own, so along with four other multimedia artists, she opened an exhibition in Minneapolis titled “Trading Post: Exchange and Sojourn.”
“The many Dutch trading posts and Dutch participation in the transatlantic slave trade to the Abolitionist movement are significant to my communal ancestry as an African American, raised in New England, now residing in the South,” her website says.
“Another part of the Trading Post,” she says, “is about trying to unpack this idea of what it means to trade with someone because as soon as you talk about trade, the first thing you talk about is value.”
Her works have appeared in galleries from Montana to India and belong in private collections from Seoul, South Korea, to New York. Through Feb. 20, the University of South Carolina’s School of Art and Design played host to a solo exhibition, “Trading Post: Huys de Hope.”
Peter Chametzky, a USC art history professor, sat on the committee that selected Dean for a January residency.
“When you start talking about the process of making a piece, say, in ceramics, there’s a lot of emotion involved in that,” he says, noting that during Dean’s pre-exhibition lecture, “she really filled us in about her intellectual and emotional background, different experiences she’s had and how that all is wrapped up in these objects she makes.”
He goes on to cite metaphorical connections he sees between the potter’s wheel, which spins like the Earth, whence her material comes, and her artist’s hands, which shape works that also reflect the manual labor of enslaved peoples.
“That’s all really a part of the piece,” he says. “It’s very process-oriented, and I think her work communicates that very well.”