Art History

#art history #assemblage #culture #quilts #sculpture

Rooted in the American South, ‘Souls Grown Deep Like the Rivers’ Recognizes Remarkable Artistic Traditions of Black Artists

March 20, 2023

Kate Mothes

A mixed media artwork by Thornton Dial

Thornton Dial, “Stars of Everything” (2004), mixed media, 248.9 x 257.8 x 52.1 centimeters. All images courtesy of Souls Grown Deep Foundation, Atlanta, unless otherwise noted. Image © 2023 Estate of Thornton Dial, ARS, NY, and DACS, London 2023. Photos of individual artworks by Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio

The last line of a 1921 poem by Langston Hughes reads, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” From the sun rising over the Euphrates to the muddy banks of the Mississippi, his words evoke the universality and timelessness of flowing water mirrored by the coursing of blood through our veins. Taking inspiration from Hughes’s reflections, Souls Grown Deep Like the Rivers at the Royal Academy of Arts in London shines a light on the creative traditions of Black artists in the American South whose artistic pursuits reflect pervasive issues of economic inequality, oppression, and marginalization and examine themes like identity, sexuality, the influence of place, and ancestral memory.

Encompassing more than 60 quilts, sculptures, installations, paintings, drawings, and assemblages by 34 artists from the mid-20th-century to the present, the exhibition is drawn largely from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation. Based in Atlanta, Georgia, the organization stewards a collection of around 1,000 works by more than 160 Southern Black artists—two-thirds of whom are women—to advocate for their inclusion in the art historical canon. While many are now well-known in the U.S., most of their works have never before been exhibited in Europe.

Many of the pieces are made from materials like clay, driftwood, roots, discarded objects, and recycled cloth. Because access to formal exhibition spaces was often curtailed for Black artists, many presented their works on their own property in a disappearing yet deeply Southern tradition known as “yard shows.” One of the best known and last remaining is Joe Minter’s “African Village in America,” in Birmingham, Alabama. In 1819, enslaved people accounted for more than a third of the state’s population, and the DIY shows evolved from a tradition in which yards were the only space for many to enjoy music and express creativity. Minter’s work is represented at the Royal Academy in a sculpture made of welded found metal poignantly titled “And He Hung His Head and Died.”


A mixed media artwork by Lonnie Holley

Lonnie Holley, “Keeping a Record of It (Harmful Music)” (1986), salvaged phonograph top, phonograph record, and animal skull, 34.9 x 40 centimeters. Image © 2023 Lonnie Holley, ARS, NY, and DACS, London 2023

The legacy of Gee’s Bend, which continues today as a collective, is represented through numerous bold quilts, including Marlene Bennett Jones’s “Triangles,” in which she repurposes corduroy and denim jeans into a geometric composition. Raised on a farm in the community that was formerly a cotton plantation owned by Joseph Gee, Jones and other residents are direct descendants of the enslaved people who worked the fields, then remained there following the Civil War to work as sharecroppers. During the Depression, the U.S. government purchased ten-thousand acres of the former plantation and provided loans that enabled residents to acquire the land. Unlike many others who were evicted or forced to move due to economic circumstances, families were able to remain in Gee’s Bend, and “cultural tradi­tions like quiltmaking were nourished by these continuities.”

The majority of the artists featured in this exhibition learned artistic skills that were passed down through the generations or from friends and mentors. Many respond to dark and painful parts of U.S. history like the era of slavery and subsequent racial segregationist policies that continue to profoundly influence life today. Artist and musician Lonnie Holley assembles pieces of metal from an old phonograph into “Keeping a Record of It (Harmful Music),” an abstract, rusted turntable topped with an animal skull. The work visualizes passing time, decay, and the idiomatic phrase “sound like a broken record”—repeating the same thing over and over again.

Souls Grown Deep Like the Rivers continues at the Royal Academy of Arts in London through June 18.


Left: A quilt by Marlene Bennett Jones. Right: A metal sculpture by Joe Minter

Left: Marlene Bennett Jones, “Triangles” (2021), denim, corduroy, and cotton, 205.7 x 157.5 centimeters. © 2023 Marlene Bennett Jones. Left: Joe Minter, “And He Hung His Head and Died” (1999), welded found metal, 243.8 x 194.3 x 87.6 centimeters. Image © ARS, NY, and DACS, London 2023

A painting by Purvis Young

Purvis Young, “Untitled (Narrative Scene)” (1980s), paint on found board with frame made by the artist, 121 x 245 x 8 centimeters. Courtesy of the Graham Fleming and Maciej Urbanek Collection, in memory of Larry T. Clemons. Image © 2023 The Larry T. Clemons Collection and ARS, NY. Photo by Maciej Urbanek

A sculpture of an eagle carved and assembled from wood by Ralph Griffin

Ralph Griffin, “Eagle” (1988), found wood, nails, and paint, 88.9 x 110.5 x 55.9 centimeters. Image © ARS, NY, and DACS, London 2023

An installation view of two quilts

Gallery view of Souls Grown Deep like the Rivers at the Royal Academy of Arts. Photo by David Parry and Royal Academy of Arts

An assemblage of tin, nails and enamel paint by Ronald Lockett

Ronald Lockett, “Sarah Lockett’s Roses” (1997), cut tin, nails, and enamel on wood, 129.5 x 123.2 x 3.8 centimeters. Image © ARS, NY, and DACS, London 2023

A green, red, and tan quilt by Martha Jane Pettway

Martha Jane Pettway, “‘Housetop’— nine-block ‘Half- Log Cabin’ variation” (c. 1945), corduroy, 182.9 x 182.9 centimeters. Image © Estate of Martha Jane Pettway, ARS, NY, and DACS, London 2023

A painting on wood by Mose Tolliver

Mose Tolliver, “Mary” (1986), house paint on wood, 50.8 x 45.7 centimeters. Image © Estate of Mose Tolliver and DACS 2023

An installation view of 'Souls Grown Deep like the Rivers' at Royal Academy in London

Gallery view of Souls Grown Deep like the Rivers at the Royal Academy of Arts. Photo by David Parry and Royal Academy of Arts

#art history #assemblage #culture #quilts #sculpture


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