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Art galleries are not neutral spaces. For all its attempts to modernise, London’s Royal Academy embodies the closest the UK art scene has to an establishment. It occupies a gated palace on Piccadilly. In staging Souls Grown Deep like the Rivers: Black Artists from the American South, the Academy has brought artists who have for a very long time been siloed under the labels “outsider” or “self-taught” into its halls. What it has not done is stepped out to meet them halfway.
Souls Grown Deep… takes its name from a private foundation (which in turn takes its name from an early poem by Langston Hughes). Established in 2010 by Atlanta-based collector William S Arnett, its mission is to advocate for the inclusion of black artists from the South in the American art historical canon. It has supported exhibitions and placed works from its huge collection in over 30 US museums, among them The Met and National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. The RA show follows on from dialogue with the foundation during the planning of Yinka Shonibare CBE’s fabulously disruptive 2021 summer exhibition, conceived in response to #BlackLivesMatter.
In Souls Grown Deep…, twisting tree roots and branches transform into monstrous grotesques and mystic beasts. Pieces of old hardware assume the positions of Jesus and the two thieves crucified at Calvary. A row of blackened rags suspended from a wire become a line full of crows, shot and strung up as a warning.
This is art held together by acts of magic and faith, that invites you to look at junk, scrap metal, old clothes and pieces of wood, and to see them as things full of potential. These works, by artists including Lonnie Holley, Thornton Dial and Loretta Pettway, have been created within specific local traditions of painting, sculptural assemblage and textile work that developed as skills and knowledge passed generation to generation, friend to friend.
In Dial’s Stars of Everything (2004), a figure with a hawk-like head and a body made from old stuffed clothes and a rug rears out of a canvas covered in old paint cans split open to form colourful starbursts. Mrs Bendolph (2002) is painted in muted greys and blues over a lumpy, abstract grid of patterned textiles: clothes, sheets, carpeting. If they recall works by the US American artist Robert Rauschenberg, that’s no coincidence. Rauschenberg’s mid-century “combines” – in which paint was applied to compositions of discarded objects – explicitly took inspiration from vernacular sculptural traditions of the American South.
Loretta Pettway is one of a group of quiltmakers from Gee’s Bend Alabama, celebrated for their inventive abstract patterns stitched from scraps of used or discarded cloth. The earliest quilt in the show, made in the 30s by Rachel Carey George, carries an irregular geometric pattern of concentric angles stitched from white and patterned cotton. Made in the period that the Parisian avant-garde was experimenting with geometric abstraction, and Anni Albers was weaving rhythmic patterns of coloured lozenges at the Bauhaus in Dessau, George’s quilt was a practical, functional object, one that now carries the stains of use. It is nevertheless a textile work of improvisational originality.
In common with many artists on show in Souls Grown Deep…, Lonnie Holley’s sculptures were once exhibited in a grand outdoors installation as “yard art”. Many of his earlier works were forcibly destroyed in 1997 after the Birmingham Airport Authority condemned his property. His works at the RA include an evocation of his grandfather – Spirit of the Man by the Chicken House Door (1984) – a little chair with a busted cane seat and a water can hanging from the back, and a small wooden door strung with chicken wire, into the top of which is carved a man’s profile. It’s an evocation of absence.
Above a lump of stone perched on an old photocopier, Holley has scratched “It’s like I’m Living in Hell” with a stiff-bristled brush dunked in black paint. Copying the Rock (1995) suggests damaging cycles – a hell of endless repetition. Another work refers to the demonisation of popular (African American-inspired) music.
Holley is, among many other things, a musician as well as an artist. He has been invited to perform at the exhibition’s opening, but his work will otherwise be shown in silence. As a display, Souls Grown Deep… is very still, very reverent, very formal. There is none of the sound, music, clutter or life that accompanied these works when first made.
What happens when an elite academy exhibits work by artists excluded from higher education? What does it mean to have work by artists who, for decades, made and showed in adverse circumstances, often without access to traditional art materials or tools, at the social margins, displayed at one of the grandest and most forbidding cultural sites in London?
Apart from a discreet monitor showing a film of Joe Minter’s monumental yard display African Village in America, we don’t see, hear or feel much of the context in which these works were made or displayed. It is clean, restrained – respectful, yes, but one might also argue overly sanitised.
Three years ago, Turner Contemporary showed work by many of these same artists in We Will Walk – Art and Resistance in the American South. There, it was accompanied by documentary photographs of yard art, displays on the civil rights movement (in which many of these artists had been participants), and the blues and jazz music with which it is intimately connected. That earlier exhibition was cut short by the pandemic – a great shame, since I think the liveliness of the display served the work better.
What this show does well is explore the various crosscurrents of influence between artists working in different media. Gridded, wall-mounted metal works by Ronald Lockett, including the rusted and forbidding Oklahoma (1995), hang near a quilt by Mary Lee Bendolph – Burgle Boys (2007). There is a clear alliance between the rhythmic gridded patterning of the textile work and that of the welded metal. (Thornton Dial’s Mrs Bendolph pays explicit homage to his fellow artist.) Dial taught Lonnie Holley, and passed the artistic mantle on through his own family, represented here in works by his sons Richard and Thornton Jr.
The show closes with quilts from Gee’s Bend, created over a 90-year period, and displaying a distinct tradition of patterning and improvisation. They also represent entrepreneurship – the quilts are sought after, and their production and sale has become a thriving concern.
While it would have been exciting to have the RA loosen up a bit in response to these works, it is nevertheless an invigorating show, charged with symbolism and defiance
Souls Grown Deep like the Rivers: Black Artists from the American South is on at the Royal Academy, London, until 18 June 2023
Souls Grown Deep like the Rivers is an invigorating showcase of black American artists
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