Photo credit: Collette Hopkins
Githii Honors collaborates with DiasporaU for a day of Story and Folk-Telling
If you are visually curious then you may have paused at the unusual sculptural formation on the Spelman College side lawn, adjacent to the Olivia Hanks Cosby Academic Building. Collette Hopkins of DiasporaU, is responsible for the proliferation of blue bottle trees in Atlanta’s west side communities. But Spelman is the only place where you can wonder and wander in a forest of blue bottle trees.
Spelman’s Bottle Tree Forest is a lesson in African American history, culture, says Dr. Hopkins.
R. Paul Thomason, assistant professor of drama and dance at Spelman College, was commissioned by Hopkins to fashion the bottle trees from reclaimed steel and blue, or indigo, bottles, and install them at the College. The 24 trees, which are built to scale, are not merely a garden installation. The site is intended to evoke a space of creativity, history, meditation and play. Bottle trees are not exclusively associated with African American communities. However, indigo blue is specific to Africa and evoke specific meanings, practices and associations within African diasporic communities.
Honors Program Director, professor Opal Moore, was intrigued with the appearance of the “forest,” and considered it the ideal space of imagination and play for the final Honors Program colloquy on the children’s book, Flossie and the Fox (McKissick & Isadora). The collaboration between Honors Program and DiasporaU came together quickly with Dr. Hopkins’ offer to connect a storytelling afternoon performance as an experiential colloquy with the Honors class of 2020 book title and well-known storyteller Mama Koku who will “tell” both Flossie and the Fox and The Glass Bottle Tree by Evelyn Coleman (illustrated by Gail Gordon Carter).
The storytelling event will take place between 2 and 5pm, this Sunday, March 26, with activities in the Olivia Hanks Cosby lobby and story performances in the Bottle Tree Forest. (In the case of rain, all activities will take place in Cosby lobby.) Honors students will host local school children and all will enjoy Mama Koku’s enactment of the original tale by Patricia McKissick and Evelyn Coleman. Dr. Hopkins will provide interactive and docent training for students who wish to gain community service credit. The training will take place on Saturday, March 25, at 1pm (Giles 101).
The Honors Program motto “Read Everything” is brilliantly dramatized in McKissick’s book. McKissick’s tale offers a perfect story model for how communities must convey and deploy their most salient communal values. “The first act of reading was not a reading of the page,” says Moore, ‘but a reading of the world around us. We need to make sure that our children do not believe that reading, or literacy, is one-dimensional.”
About Dr. Collette Hopkins and the history of the Bottle Tree—
Dr. Collette Hopkins created DiasporaU to “educate[s] children, families and communities about the arts, cultures and belief systems of the African Diaspora.”
Hopkins did not first intend to create a bottle tree forest. She planned to develop a DiasporaU curriculum around indigo, the plant yielding the deep blue dye which was once South Carolina’s most valuable crop after rice, and shaped the state’s plantation economy. The harvest of this “blue gold,” as indigo was deemed, depended on enslaved Africans’ labor, many of whom were from the area now known as Sierra Leone.
Bottle trees are not always blue. DiasporaU deploys blue, or indigo, bottles in honor of these enslaved Africans. Blue is also considered a protective color among the Gullah-Geechee, who are the descendants of the Africans enslaved to work indigo and other crops in the coastal southeastern United States.
Bottle tree art is not a new practice, according to Hopkins, who has researched and taught about enslavement for more than 30 years.
“Bottle trees and their accompanying legends were embraced by many ancient cultures,” she says. “In the United States, the practice was preserved by enslaved Africans and their descendants throughout the rural American South.”
Hopkins was introduced to the bottle tree tradition during a conference at the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture at the College of Charleston. Some years back, local artisan Arianne King Comer erected and led attendees in the decoration of a massive bottle tree on the Center’s front lawn.
Hopkins once spotted a front yard filled with blue bottle trees while traveling with a tour group to The Penn Center on St. Helena Island, S.C.
“I made the bus driver pull over on the side of the road,” she recalls.
The homeowner informed her that the bottles were all blue for protection, and are symbolic of rebirth. The spiritual belief is that the trees attract and trap evil spirits known as “haints” in the bottles at night. The spirits evaporate in the next day’s morning sun.
“I realized a forest would be more powerful than one tree,” says Hopkins. “There is strength in numbers. Walking through the trees and looking up into the canopy of indigo bottles, it becomes a space of not only history and culture, but also renewal.”
On Paul Thomason, and collaborative art
R. Paul Thomason and Hopkins have collaborated on a number of past projects, including a child-sized replica of the birth home of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Thomason is a well-known Atlanta artist and artist collaborator. He once designed and created a cosmogram detailing the transmigration of African cultural practices to the Americas for the Children’s Education Village of the National Black Arts Festival. (Follow the link to the Schomburg Center for “what is a cosmogram.”)
DiasporaU often partners with other cultural institutions and organizations in communities across the country to present its interactive education modules for children; curriculum opportunities for science, social studies, mathematics and language arts educators; and community engagement offerings, including lectures, performances and docent-led tours. Find Dr. Hopkins at Diaporau.org.