In the presence of art, we have the opportunity to see inside someone’s heart, mind, and soul and feel what they felt.

Gibbes Museum of Art to Debut Sculpture by Fred Wilson Inspired by Omar Ibn Said, an Islamic Scholar Enslaved in the Carolinas from 1807-1864

Fred Wilson standing in front of his sculpture

The Gibbes Museum of Art will unveil OMNISCIENCE, a newly commissioned sculpture by internationally renowned artist Fred Wilson inspired by the story of Omar Ibn Said, on May 27, 2022. Said, an Islamic scholar enslaved in the Carolinas from 1807 until his death in 1864, is believed to have written the only known Arabic-language autobiography penned by an enslaved African in the United States. Wilson, known for his interdisciplinary practice that challenges assumptions of history, culture, race and conventions of display, will explore Said’s story through a monumental metalwork created in the tradition of decorative wrought ironwork emblematic of Charleston’s historic gates.

The sculpture unveiling coincides with the world premiere of “Omar,” a new opera by Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Ables based on Said’s life and autobiography, that will debut as part of Spoleto Festival USA. The Gibbes will present Wilson’s sculpture in its main rotunda gallery through June 15, 2022 and is exploring a long-term display opportunity for the sculpture in front of the museum for the public to view for free after the initial installation closes.

“We are honored to have an acclaimed artist like Fred Wilson creating a work that drives thoughtful conversations about Charleston’s complicated history,” says Angela Mack, executive director of the Gibbes Museum of Art. “Fred’s interest in working in ironwork formed during his first trip to Charleston in 2019, when he guest lectured for us, and had an opportunity to admire the city’s many decorative iron gates. Soon after, he was exposed to the story of Said through the creation of the opera. These experiences sparked the design for this powerful piece.”

Wilson worked with artisans at the American College of the Building Arts to fabricate the sculpture, which is a 14-foot tall, 3-foot square column of black metal. Contained in the center of the column is a replica of Said’s memoir, which will appear to be floating. The hard material of the structure will be contrasted by the lightness of the book, an inference of Said’s fragility.

“I was inspired by Charleston’s iconic wrought iron gates and fences when creating this piece,” says Wilson. “There is a duality to them – being used to keep people out and keep people in. The contrast of the beauty and the ugly underbelly was very intriguing to me.”

Following a foiled slave insurrection organized in 1822 by Denmark Vesey, many residents in Charleston affixed iron spikes to their fences as a security measure. One of the most notable examples remains in front of the Miles Brewton House on lower King Street. When Wilson saw the Miles Brewton House, he felt compelled to take a picture, which would later become the inspiration for the sculpture.

“Omar,” the world premiering opera from Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels, narrates Omar Ibn Said’s 1831 autobiography—the original copy now held at the Library of Congress–tracing his spiritual journey from his life in West Africa to his enslavement in the Carolinas. A Muslim scholar, Said was 37 when he was captured in Futa Toro and brought to Charleston. Upon arrival in the United States, Said was sold to a Charlestonian, but escaped and fled to North Carolina, where he was recaptured, sent to jail, and then resold to James Owen, the brother of one of the state’s governors. His story is one of strength, resistance and religious conviction—a work underscoring the indelible power of the written word.

About Fred Wilson

Fred Wilson’s many accolades include the prestigious John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s “Genius” Grant (1999); the Skowhegan Medal for Sculpture (2006); the Alain Locke Award from The Friends of African and African American Art at the Detroit Institute of Arts (2013); a Lifetime Achievement Award, Howard University, Washington, D.C. (2017); the Ford Foundation’s, The Art of Change Award (2017-18); and an honor by The Black Alumni of Pratt Institute during their 2017 Celebration of the Creative Spirit. Wilson was named the 2019 recipient of Brandeis University’s Creative Arts Award and is a trustee of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Wilson was the keynote speaker at the Gibbes’ annual Distinguished Lecture Series in November 2019.

About “Omar”

“Omar” is presented by Wells Fargo. The opera is inspired by Dr. Ala Alryyes’s translation of Omar Ibn Said’s autobiography in his book, A Muslim American Slave: The Life of Omar Ibn Said. Reprinted by permission of the University of Wisconsin Press. © 2011 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved. Omar is co-commissioned and co-produced by Spoleto Festival USA and Carolina Performing Arts at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Carolina Performing Arts’ participation in this project is made possible through the support of the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust. Additional co-commissioners include LA Opera, Boston Lyric Opera, San Francisco Opera, and Lyric Opera of Chicago.

April 28, 2022

Top image: Fred Wilson in front of OMNISCIENCE. Photo by MCG Photography

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