High Museum of Art, Picturing the South Exhibition featuring Invisible Empire
Sheila Pree Bright began her career documenting the emerging hip-hop scene in Houston during the 1990s, and she has continued to chronicle the culture and lived experiences of Black Americans. Whether photographing suburban middle-class Black homes or making portraits of young people of color, Bright’s photographs challenge prevailing ideals of White aesthetics and foreground Black narratives. In recent years, she has made emotionally charged photographs of the civic actions led by the Black Lives Matter movement that draw poignant connections between the present moment of unrest and the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
In 2020, the High invited Bright to expand upon a photo essay she’d published the year before in The Washington Post about Stone Mountain, a granite monadnock just outside Atlanta that is home to hiking trails, a theme park, and the largest memorial to the Confederacy. Bright, who lives nearby, felt spurred to photograph the landscape surrounding the mountain by the site’s sordid history, which stands in contrast to its natural splendor. In 1915, members of the Ku Klux Klan reestablished the noted hate group atop the mountain, and in 1923, construction began of a bas-relief monument depicting three prominent Confederates as a memorial to the Lost Cause of the Confederacy. The monument was completed in 1972 and continues to be a profoundly controversial symbol.
Bright took a sidelong approach to this history and instead focused on the land itself with the aim of demonstrating how the way we shape the land also shapes the narratives of what has taken place upon it. The title and ethos of the project were inspired by W. E. B. Du Bois’s essay “Georgia: Invisible Empire State,” which reflects on the dissonance created by viewing the remarkable beauty of Georgia while knowing of the many violent and hateful events that have taken place on the land. In an effort to reclaim the mountain and position the land as a source of justice and liberation, Bright’s landscape photographs further her exploration of Southern history in relation to the Black experience. Her mysterious black-and-white photographs scrutinize the literal and figurative marks that the region’s history of White supremacy have left on the land by delving into the tension created when confronted with an enduring symbol of Black terror amidst the alluring beauty of a bucolic space