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Charlottesville artist connects Gullah and Ghana cultures in new exhibit

Self-taught artist and photographer Marley Nichelle said they didn’t know they were Gullah until people told them they talked funny when they moved to Charlottesville eight years ago.

“I didn’t even know I had an accent or even spoke a different dialect,” said Nichelle, who is a native of Georgetown, South Carolina, about an hour outside of Charleston.

As they began researching their Gullah identity and roots, Nichelle noticed stark similarities between Gullah culture in the Lowcountry of South Carolina and the Ghanaian culture of West Africa.

Those connections are now on display at the Looking Glass immersive art space at IX Art Park in Charlottesville.

Nichelle’s exhibit, which opened on Thursday, is called the “Sankofa Journey.”

The word and concept of sankofa has been attributed to the Akan tribe of Ghana and translates to “it is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind.” It is often represented by the image of a bird with its head turned backward with its feet facing forward and an egg in its mouth.

“I hope this exhibition does send people back to their roots in a sankofa way,” Nichelle told The Daily Progress. “I want to bring that perspective here, not just through Gullah, but through West Africanism, because we have preserved a lot of West African traditions. You can tell a lot of people come from Ghana just by the way they live, and that’s why it’s so easy for me to go and document that because people maintain that way of life in South Carolina to this day.”

The Lowcountry and Gullah Islands of South Carolina are home to the Gullah and Geechee people, who maintain strong connections to their west and central African as well as indigenous American roots.

Nichelle’s exhibit features images of Ghanaian people making traditional kente cloth, cutting fruit and playing instruments. There are also images of the Ghana landscape, which sometimes resembles South Carolina’s Gullah Islands.

“That’s why sankofa exhibitions exist: to go back to your past to know your identity and tap into yourself,” Nichelle said. “The key is doing the research to know your history and your family first.”

Nichelle welcomed guests at the eclectic mixed-media display on Saturday evening while selling art and giving lessons in Gullah history.

Last December, the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation used funds from a grant it received from the University of Virginia Equity Center to send Nichelle to Ghana for the “Sankofa” project. The grant from UVa specified that the money should go to an artist who travels to document a cultural experience and who would present their work to the city of Charlottesville when they returned.

Nichelle received the grant and traveled to Ghana all in the same month.

“If you go to the Caribbean, West Indies, the Gullah Islands too, you will hear African dialect,” Nichelle said. “That’s how I know a lot about the cultural background and similarities to West Africanism. I was able to see it my first time going to Winneba, which is our sister city.”

During Nichelle’s trip, they spent most of their time in Winneba, which is one of Charlottesville’s sister cities according to the Charlottesville Sister Cities Commission, an organization with City Council-appointed members, that exists to “promote peace through mutual respect, understanding, and cooperation” with sister cities around the world.

The organization identifies sister cities as those with several similarities. According to the commission, Winneba and Charlottesville are both university communities with an emphasis on the arts, memorable landscapes, similar economies and connected history.

One of the first similarities between Ghanaian and Gullah culture Nichelle noticed was food.

Where red rice is a staple in Gullah culture, jollof rice is a Ghanaian favorite.

Beyond food, the “Sankofa Journey” captures a cultural connection to nature and the earth.

“I’m the descendant of a sharecropper, and I have worked on my family’s land up until recently but, because I lived in it, I never saw it as West African,” Nichelle said. “Then when I went to Africa for the first time in 2019, I saw it for myself.”

In March 2022, Nichelle created a similar solo online exhibition called “Ghana to Gullah,” a collection of images that illustrate the Ghanaian origins of Gullah culture, food, music and traditions. The digital exhibit documented Nichelle’s journey from Ghana back to their home in Georgetown in order to document and educate others on the history and Ghanaian connections to Gullah culture.

Nichelle said they hope to take the “Sankofa Journey” to Charlottesville and Albemarle public schools to teach students about the ways that Black Americans have preserved West African culture through slavery and the Jim Crow era.

“Right now, my [Gullah] grandmother is my sankofa,” Nichelle said. “I’d like to continue showing people that their grandparents are their sankofa too.”

Nichelle’s exhibit at the Looking Glass space will end on Monday. The exhibit is open from 5 p.m. until 7 p.m. Admission is free.

For more information call (434) 207-2964 or visit

Those interested in Nichelle’s work can see the artist’s portfolio online.


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