By creating his first readymades in 1914, Marcel Duchamp made it possible for anyone to become an artist and for anything to be an artwork. He could not have known, at that time, that among the greatest exemplars of his newly articulated ethos would be black artists from the American South.
Yet that ethos of art, art by everyone for everyone with anything, is what drives black artists from the American South. Theirs is an art of the people for the people which, although it is now being collected and displayed within the art establishment systems, is essentially subversive within those systems, being a healthier, more democratic approach and one that is more vigorously creative as a result.
The ethos of art, art by everyone for everyone with anything, is what drives black artists from the American South.
While the worker is always worthy of their hire and many artists making work displayed here will not always have received due monetary recompense for their creativity – as also was the case for blues singers, for example, in relation to the 1960s R&B boom – nevertheless, the ethos of integrating art into daily life by using recycled materials immediately to hand and displaying such work in homes and yards is profoundly healthy for communities in a way that the more elitist mainstream art system of art for the wealthy often simply is not.
The challenging economic situation and lack of resources faced by these artists – the result of systemic racism in the South – pushed their creativity towards using local, recycled materials and found objects to realise their artworks. As most of the artists shown here have not had access to formal art spaces, often the only place they could display their work was in their yards. The “Yard Show” is a deeply rooted Southern tradition where artists would arrange their sculptures, paintings, and assemblages on their property. Joe Minter, in particular, is well known for creating one of the largest examples in the American South called ‘African Village in America’ near Birmingham, Alabama.
In the communities from which these artists hail, the ethos of everyone as artist and art for everyone is one that is generally inspired by the Spirit or spirits, whether the Holy Spirit or ancestral spirits. The Spirit is democratic, filling all and enabling all to prophesy, speak in tongues and create. There is no need for human training or authorisation because God, through the Spirit, inspires and anoints directly. The quilt-making undertaken at Gee’s Bend, which features prominently here, is, for example, often done to haunting gospel harmonies and ecstatic, spontaneous prayers amidst the ongoing rhythms of stitching with the ‘call and response’ element of gospel worship also being intrinsic to the target-like push and pull among elements of their designs.
Whether reaching back to African healing traditions or Southern Christianity, spirituality is the soil within which the artwork displayed here was seeded. Sometimes explicit, as with Joe Minter’s ‘And He Hung His Head and Died’, where figures made from industrial brackets for shelving are set against black metal crosses that represent the three crosses on Calvary, or Mary T Smith’s ‘He’ in which a wooden board with rusted nails, a tyre rim and a sign painted with the word ‘HE’ forms a crucifix. At other times, implicit in works where inspired choices have been made to creatively combine found objects in ways which speak emotively to the hell that has often been the collective experience of the black community as with Lonnie Holley’s ‘Copying the Rock’ or Joe Light’s ‘Blue River Mountain’, where the river represents hope in response to mental distress. The issues to which these artists respond, as works by Thornton Dial and Lonnie Holley particularly show, are expansive and global in nature: from economic inequality, oppression and social marginalisation, to sexuality, current affairs, the influence of place and nature and ancestral memory.
Family and community connections also feature strongly in the show and the shared experience of these artists. Ronald Lockett, for example, was raised by his great-grandmother and Thornton Dial’s great-aunt, the quilter Sarah Lockett. Sarah instilled an awareness of beauty in the every day in Ronald, who later developed his artistic skills under the guidance of Dial, going on to create a beautiful tribute to Sarah in ‘Sarah Lockett’s Roses’. Dial has also visited Gee’s Bend and made his own tribute ‘Mrs Bendolph’ to one of the leading quiltmakers there, Mary Lee Bendolph, whose ‘Burgle Boys’ quilt is shown here alongside Dial’s tribute.
In this exhibition, the RA is showing 64 works by 34 artists from the mid-20th century to the present, in various media, including assemblages, sculpture, paintings, reliefs, and drawings – primarily drawn from the collection of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, Atlanta, Georgia. While works from this collection have been shown in the UK before – Turner Contemporary, 2020 – most of the works in this exhibition are being shown for the first time in Europe. The Foundation stewards the largest and foremost collection of works by Black artists from the Southern United States, encompassing some 1,000 works by more than 160 artists, two-thirds of whom are women. Inevitably, therefore, this exhibition represents just the tip of an iceberg that warrants further exploration within Europe, including displays of the works of pioneer and exemplar artists such as William Edmondson, Minnie Evans, Clementine Hunter, Sister Gertrude Morgan and Bill Traylor, plus the wider experience of Outsider artists from the American South such as that of Howard Finster.
The Souls Grown Deep Foundation derives its name from a 1921 poem by Langston Hughes titled ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’, the last line of which is “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” Hughes writes that through his heritage and experience, he has known rivers, including the Euphrates, Nile and Mississippi, “ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.” While often having been locally based, the artists shown here, through their heritage and imagination, have in their work travelled extensively through history, myth, religion and politics. Using what was immediately to hand, their creativity, resourcefulness and determination are an inspiration revealing that all can be artists and that everything can be art.
Words: Rev Jonathan Evens ©Artlyst 2023
Souls Grown Deep Like the Rivers: Black Artists from the American South, Royal Academy of Arts, 17 March – 18 June 2023
Lead image: Joe Light, Blue River Mountain, 1988. Enamel on wood, 81.3 x 121.9 cm. Souls Grown Deep Foundation, Atlanta. © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2022. Photo: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio