Artist Zsudayka Nzinga Terrell clearly remembers the day in high school when the teacher asked her to write about her family history.

She saw that it was impossible to answer the questions 'Who am I?' and 'Where did I come from?'

“So the white kids were able to get up and talk about hundreds of years of their background. And there was me and one other black kid in the class who could go back to a plantation in Virginia and that’s it.”

She talked about her family’s history.

“My people were brought here on the bottom of a ship. And they were sold and they were re-named. My dad’s side of the family took the last name of the job that they had, which is butlers. My mom’s side of the family took the last name of the plantation that owned them.”

Today, she and her husband, artist James Terrell, explore that identity in their work. Their new exhibit of paintings is called “Born at the Bottom of the Ship.” The show recently opened at the Center for the Arts in Manassas, Virginia.

Over the generations, Africans became African Americans with a new culture, and Nzinga Terrell includes different parts of that story in her art. There are things that look like African cloth and design and things that make you think of American culture and clothing.

An example is “Hope and Grace,” a painting of two women wearing colorful clothes with traditional African patterns.

James Terrell’s style is more abstract. Mami Wata, the first painting visitors see in the new exhibit, shows a woman rising from the ocean. Terrell explains the painting.

“Mami Wata is a goddess of the sea…. There's no light going through; there’s not a lot of color being seen, as opposed to the other ones. So, it’s just showing the time of the slaves being brought to America.”

But the artist says he also likes to play with color. Growing up, Terrell attended a church with colored glass in many windows. Because of that experience, he learned how light goes through the windows. He makes lines in his painting that look like the lines between pieces of colored glass in the church windows. He says he wants the people in his painting to look happy, hopeful and strong.

Visitors to the art exhibit say they see themselves and their family members in the works. They like the different kinds of people in the paintings because they know that many Americans come from other countries and cultures.

The artists hope to take their exhibit to other states and around the world.

Exercise 1


Read the following vocabulary with your teacher.

plantation (n.) /plænˈteɪʃən/ -  a large area of land especially in a hot part of the world where crops (such as cotton) are grown

  • I grew up on a plantation.

butler (n.) /ˈbʌtlə/ - the main male servant in the home of a wealthy person

  • In the past five years demand for butlers has risen ten-fold in the UK.

abstract (adj.) /ˈabstrakt/ - expressing ideas and emotions by using elements such as colors and lines without attempting to create a realistic picture

  • The living room was decorated with many abstract paintings.

slave (n.)  -  someone who is legally owned by another person and is forced to work for that person without pay

  • He treats her like a slave.


Exercise 2


Answer these questions about the article.

1. Does Zsudayka Nzinga Terrell know a lot about her family history?

2. What is the exhibition of African American art called?

3. What does the painting Mami Wata depict?


Exercise 3

Make a sentence.

Make sentences using these words.

plantation, butler, abstract, slave


Exercise 4


Have a discussion on following questions.

1. What do you think about the idea of exploring one's past through art?

2. Are you interested in art?

3. Do you know a lot about your family history?

4. Do you think it's important to keep track of your family history?


This lesson is based on a news article originally published by VOA.