Sheldon Scott is a DC-based artist who has performed for over a decade at venues like the Hirshhorn, the Capital Fringe Theatre Festival, and Busboys & Poets. This weekend at the National Portrait Gallery, you can see his piece “Portrait, number 1 man (day clean ta sun down),” which pays tribute to the long hours worked by his ancestors who were enslaved along the coastal region of the pre-Civil War South. On his knees and without ever resting, Scott hulls and winnows individual grains of rice before weighing them and placing them on a separate display. He works from sunup to sundown until the weight of the rice equals his own.
Although rice is typically not hulled by hand and is instead beaten down to break off the shells, he has chosen to remove violence from the act. Still, it’s a grueling and tedious task. The work, which Scott describes as labor-based brutality, has already begun to abrade his own fingerprints. But as someone with Gullah heritage, Scott says his performance is about honoring and humanizing his ancestors.
“I hope that this translates to the audience, when they experience this piece, the humanity that is often times left out of the narrative of being enslaved,” Scott says at dawn on Friday, the only time he was able to speak as he prepared for a day’s worth of labor.
It’s been an isolating process that’s had a physical, psychological and emotional impact. Confined to a small space, Scott is unable to make eye contact or speak as he works. “It certainly has been taxing my body,” Scott says. “But I think what’s even more significant, is the psychological and emotional impact of what has been an incredibly isolating process.”
Still, many visitors and even the museum’s staff and workers have found solidarity with Scott and his work by leaving notes, poetry, and even meditating or singing as the exhibition runs throughout the day. One note left at the foot of Scott’s performance read: “Thank you Sheldon, for this time to contemplate ‘the transactional and the incalculable’ and what actually has worth.”
“Portrait, number 1 man (day clean ta sun down)” was accepted in the triennial Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, the first of its kind to be accepted by the national contest. For Dorothy Moss, curator of painting, sculpture and performance art at the gallery, it’s been an eye-opening display that compels viewers to reconsider both American history and the present day.
“I think that [Scott’s] presence here adds meaning to all of our installations,” Moss says. “You walk through America’s Presidents to find him, and if you walk back out that way, you see those portraits in a different light.”
For Scott, it’s a contemplation that’s long overdue, not just in DC but across the nation. “We clearly, as a collective, have not been able to process the trauma and the foundation of this country,” he says. “Not just with the enslavement of Africans but from the very beginning with the genocide of the indigenous people who were here before colonization… The fact that the Portrait Gallery has really stepped up and committed to being a part of that conversation, so that the nation can begin that dialogue, I think is incredibly important.”
The live performance is also accompanied by a 13 hour-long film of Scott hulling rice in real time on the South Carolina plantation where at least six generations of Scott’s family were enslaved and forced to harvest rice grains.
The exhibition will close out Saturday with a final performance and Gulla vocalists, including musician Tamar-kali. The accompanying film will remain on view through August 2020. Visitors can stop by between 11:30 AM and 7 PM.