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Visual arts: We Will Walk: Art and Resistance in the American South

07 August 2020

Jonathan Evens visited Margate to see art from the American South

courtesy of the high museum of art

Nellie Mae Rowe (1900-82), This World Is Not My Home (1979)

Nellie Mae Rowe (1900-82), This World Is Not My Home (1979)

WHEN the need exists — and, in a secular culture, there is occasion — to argue that creativity and spirituality are innate aspects of human being, a special place in the argument should be reserved for self-taught artists.

Although the work of self-taught artists from the American South has been a significant personal interest for many years, “We Will Walk: Art and Resistance in the American South” was a first opportunity to see for myself a representative sample of their work. These are artists who, finding themselves denied access and agency through systemic racism, in impossible circumstances, and without access to the mainstream of Western fine art, none the less create innovative artworks using whatever found objects are at hand,and often viewing themselves as inspired by God in doing so.

Nellie Mae Rowe said: “We always got some work to do for the Lord, and I’m going to try my best to do it.” Bessie Harvey viewed God as being “the artist” in her work. Emmer Sewell arranges stuff to make her yard more beautiful, but that’s “about the Lord’s Gospel messages”. Thornton Dial discovered that, since he began making art, his mind had “got more things coming to it”, and the Spirit “works off the mind and get stronger. . . Like an angel following you around.”

Joe Minter asked God to help him to find a way in which he could bring people together as one, “and it finally came back to me that the only way was through art. Art is the universal thing.” China Pettway, part of a quartet of quilters from the isolated African-American community of Gee’s Bend in the heartland of Alabama state, says: “While quilting, I sing, because it’s a sound of whistling humming God gave me.”

Courtesy of the High museum of artThornton Dial (1928-2016), Green Pastures: The Birds That Didn’t Learn How To Fly (2007)

These statements are replicated in the lives, practices, and artworks of others among the artists included here. Such faith also found expression in the Civil Rights movement, whose significance is explored here through documentary photographs, including those of Doris Derby. Derby has said: “I wanted to take pictures of the people who were there, surviving. . . They were some of the same people who risked their lives to go to vote, to better their status. . . I wanted to show who the people are, where they lived, and what they were doing. They were the basis of the success of the Civil Rights movement.”

Structured in terms of the imagery of roots, yards, walking, and migration — which enable exploration of sources, home, protest, and influence — this exhibition focuses on factors that facilitated survival, creativity, and change in a setting of sustained and systemic discrimination. Bonnie Greer, speaking at the launch of “We Will Walk”, said: ‘We abstracted our experience; we abstracted our life. It is an act of great artistry and genius, and it is how we saved ourselves.”

Several generations of self-taught artists from the South are represented here, beginning with the work of William Edmondson and Bill Traylor from the 1930s and continuing to Lonnie Holley’s I Woke Up in a Fucked-Up America, a video from 2018. The majority of the works derive from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation’s collection, which, in addition to those already mentioned, includes Mary T. Smith, Purvis Young, Ronald Lockett, Joe Light, and the quilt-makers of Gee’s Bend.

Courtesy Turner Contemporary/Stephen WhiteInstallation view of “We Will Walk: Art and Resistance in the American South”, showing quilt works

Among the many innovations of this exhibition is that it represents the first opportunity in the UK to see examples of African American quilt-making. The extent, creativity, and quality of the heritage textile traditions of African American artists is still being uncovered in the US through legacies and exhibitions; witness, for example, the current retrospective at BAMPFA of work by the Bay Area quilter Rosie Lee Tompkins.

The Souls Grown Deep collection — now being transferred to leading American and international art museums — is particularly strong in works dating from the death of Martin Luther King, Jr, to the end of the 20th century. The roots of the works can be traced to slave cemeteries and secluded woods, but, after the American Civil War and the collapse of the Southern agrarian economy, migration to great population centres, such as Birmingham, Alabama, where iron and steel production created jobs, led to the new language of quilts, funerary, and yard arts represented here.

Music — blues, folk, gospel, hip-hop, R&B, and soul — is interwoven through the show, which reveals how much these artists improvise, as jazz musicians do. Holley, in particular, has devoted his life to the practice of improvisational creativity, combining art and music in his practice. The tradition also includes dance, oral literature, informal theatre, culinary arts, and more, all alike reflecting the rich, symbolic world of the black rural South through highly charged works that address a wide range of revelatory social, religious, and political subjects.

The exhibition concludes with mainstream artists who left the South but whose work explores similar themes and events. Beverly Buchanan’s shack sculptures reflect her upbringing in the South and explore issues of slavery, poverty, inequality, and racism. Kara Walker, reflecting on her teenage years in Atlanta, Georgia, has made a series of watercolours of land workers and animals.

Courtesy Turner Contemporary/Stephen WhiteInstallation view of “We Will Walk: Art and Resistance in the American South”

Jack Whitten met Dr King in 1957 at a church in Montgomery, Alabama, in the wake of the Montgomery bus boycott. He was also present at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and for Dr King’s “I have a dream” speech in 1963. One of several works by Whitten dedicated to Dr King, King’s Wish (Martin Luther’s Dream) (1968), is a large semi-abstract painting in which faces appear and disappear among the intense hues of multiple brushstrokes, defined, primarily, “by the content of their character”.

Kerry James Marshall’s Souvenir: Composition in Three Parts (1998-2000), a wall-mounted 16th Street Baptist Church sign, plaque, and bouquet, pays homage to the four girls killed at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, in a terrorist act by white supremacists. This bombing, called by King “one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity”, marked a turning point in the US during the civil-rights movement and contributed to support for the passage by Congress of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Much has changed since Edmondson and Traylor first took up their chisel and pen, but the photos taken at Civil Rights rallies in the 1960s are the equivalent of the photos taken at Black Lives Matters protests today. Systemic racism, precisely because it is systemic, is not easily eradicated. This exhibition supports the struggle, while demonstrating the strength and creativity found among those experiencing the worst of the system’s oppression.


“We Will Walk: Art and Resistance in the American South” is at Turner Contemporary, Rendezvous, Margate, Kent, and runs until 6 September. Entry is free, but advance booking is required at turnercontemporary.org. Phone 01483 233000.

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