TEARING away the Spanish-moss cobwebs, kicking over the porch table of mint juleps, “Souls Grown Deep Like Rivers” shows the hardscrabble life of Black artists from the American South during the second half of the 20th century.
While six million Black residents left the South for the cities during the Great Migration between 1910 and 1970, the artists at the Royal Academy are the ones who stayed on or near the land where their ancestors worked as slaves. Living in the shadow of Jim Crow, the artists had limited economic and educational opportunities.
Religion and the campaign for civil rights are intertwined in the region’s history. The oldest work is a quilt from the tradition, going back five generations, of female artists from Gee’s Bend on the Alabama river. Housetop – sixteen block Half Log Cabin variation (1930s) by Rachel Carey George, consists of rows of geometric shapes in soft pastel colours. Their angles are reflected in an enclosing black line, and then in a grey border along two outer edges. According to the curator, Raina Lampkins-Fielder, hymns would have been sung as the women sewed. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, preached at Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in Gee’s Bend in 1965, and encouraged the hamlet’s now celebrated quiltmakers to register to vote.
© Estate of Martha Jane Pettway / ARS, NY and DACS, London 2022. Photo Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin StudioMartha Jane Pettway, “Housetop”— nine-block “Half-Log Cabin” variation, c.1945, corduroy. On loan from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, Atlanta
Gee’s Bend lies 35 miles south-west of Selma, and Dr King encouraged the residents to take part in a march on Montgomery, the capital of Alabama. On 7 March, law-enforcement agencies brutally suppressed the march, in what became known as Bloody Sunday. The violence was televised, and hundreds of priests, ministers, and rabbis came to Selma to join the voting-rights march. A third march successfully reached Montgomery from Selma on 25 March, and was joined by 50,000 supporters. Dr King addressed the crowd from the steps of the state capitol building. And, in August, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, guaranteeing the right to vote for all African Americans.
For lack of access to traditional art supplies, featuring strongly are salvaged and found materials. The quiltmakers repurposed old work clothes, and Jimmy Lee Sudduth used mud, grass stain, and berry juice for the wood-panel image of Caine’s Ridge Church (1986). Stylised figures in white robes, with dark limbs, gather at the door of the white church with steeply pitched roof. Raw woodgrain covers most of the background, but a blaze of purple erupts in the foreground, a symbol of triumphant nature or a burning bush, or possibly both.
Joe Minter’s sculpture He Hung His Head and Died (1999) is three dark crucifixes made of found welded metal. On the crosses, rusting silver shears form contorted bodies, with large nails at the base and two ends of the cross beam.
Minter has also created one of the last great yard shows, African Village, in his home city of Birmingham, Alabama. Yard shows were a distinctly Southern phenomenon, with large-scale installations constructed in the grounds of domestic properties. African Village addresses 400 years of American history and racial injustice. Excluded from traditional galleries, the Souls Grown Deep artists were sometimes putting their life on the line by displaying their work in public.
Eldred M. Bailey’s sculpture garden in Atlanta displays his funerary art, including crucifixes, baseball players, dogs, and Grecian urns. He worked as a gravedigger and then a gravestone-maker. Dancers (1960s) is made from concrete, but the two facing figures, with outstretched arms, holding hands at head height, backs curving outwards, and bent knees level, as if they are doing a daringly low twist, have the lightness and energy of modelling wax or clay. Their joie de vivre transcends the material.
© ARS, NY and DACS, London 2022. Photo Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin StudioRonald Lockett, Sarah Lockett’s Roses, 1997, tin, nails, and enamel on wood. On loan from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, Atlanta
On the next plinth, Ralph Griffin’s Eagle (1988), made from found wood, nails, and paints, perches on a green stump, with wings made from uneven, vertical batons of splintering wood. Yet, like the Dancers, it is full of kinetic energy, and ready to take flight. In Anatomy I (1987), Archie Byron creates a relief from the outlined elements of facial features, hands, and feet, using sawdust and glue on wood. But its golden colour and mythological treatment of the subject create the illusion of sandstone or bronze.
One of the most haunting works is the musician and artist Lonnie Holley’s Copying the Rock (1995), in which a broken photocopier is distended with pushed-out glass plate. On top of the plate is a large rock, and the copier cover is propped up behind it, bearing the scrawled text: “It’s like I’m living in Hell”.
Thornton Dial’s multimedia Blue Skies: The Birds that Didn’t Learn How to Fly (2008) shows lifeless birds fashioned from rags, suspended by hooks from a line, against a grey sky made from enamel, and is similarly dystopian. But kinship is also on show with Sarah Lockett’s Roses (1997) by Ronald Lockett. Here, squares of cut tin, brightly coloured and topped with rose shapes, memorialise the art of his quilt-making great grandmother. Love, community, faith, and creativity transcend the bleakest of times.
“Souls Grown Deep Like Rivers” is at the Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1, until 18 June. Phone 0207 300 8000. www.royalacademy.org.uk