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Art History

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





In ‘Gothic Futurism,’ Hundreds of Rammellzee’s Works Populate a Mythic, Intergalactic Universe

December 12, 2022

Grace Ebert

A detail photo of an elaborate warrior costume of found objects

All images installation view, Rammellzee: Gothic Futurism, Jeffrey Deitch, Los Angeles, (2022-2023), by Josh White, courtesy of the gallery

At Jeffrey Deitch in Los Angeles, dozens of spacecraft constructed from skateboards, salvaged plastics, and scrap materials descend from the ceiling in a seeming rescue mission. Awash in blue light, the vehicles hover above the galleries filled with assemblages in a similar vein, from small otherworldly troopers to life-sized characters elaborately outfitted with headdresses of fur and spray-painted crowns.

The immersive, post-apocalyptic collection unveils the idiosyncratic workings of the late artist Rammellzee, whose fantastic creations rose to cult status in the 1980s alongside Jean-Michel Basquiat (previously) and Keith Haring (previously). Rammellzee started tagging along the route of New York City’s A train and continually espoused the subversive powers of graffiti and writing as his career ventured into fine art, music, performance, and philosophy. “The letter is armed to stop all the phony formations, lies, and tricknowlegies placed upon its structure,” the artist once wrote. “You think war is always shooting and beating everybody, but no, we had the letters fight for us.”


A photo of spacecraft descending from the gallery ceiling

These ideas found Rammellzee’s philosophy of Gothic Futurismauthor David Tompkins describes this as a manifesto “in which the alphabet revolts against being institutionalized, locked into the system that is magnetized to our fridge doors”—and the exhibition draws its title from this ideology. Spanning decades of the artist’s work, the show is broad and enveloping, transporting viewers into an esoteric, linguistically grounded world with references to metaphysics, medieval history, and philology.

Surrounded by dozens of paintings, Rammellzee’s hefty, extravagant suits, which he often wore when in public and termed Garbage Gods, loom over the space. Some of the intergalactic costumes weigh upwards of 100 pounds, and all reflect the artist’s impulse for armor and fighting against convention. The racers appear to culminate at the elaborate “Gasholeer” piece, for example, which is even complete with a flamethrower.

If you’re in Los Angeles, you can see Gothic Futurism at Jeffrey Deitch through January 14.


A photo of four small figurative assemblages in front of a painting

A photo of an elaborate warrior costume of found objects

A photo of an elaborate warrior costume of found objects, with a group of figurative assemblages in the foreground

A photo of multiple elaborate warrior costumes of found objects

A photo of an elaborate warrior costume of found objects with paintings in the background

A photo of an elaborate warrior costume in the background with spacecraft descending in the gallery

A photo of elaborate warrior costumes of found objects with spacecraft overhead and paintings on the back wall




In vanessa german’s New Exhibition, Freedom, Value, and Time Coalesce Through Elaborate Assemblages

October 20, 2022

Gabrielle Lawrence

“THE FATHER SHOES” (2022), mixed-media assemblage, 25 x 22 x 13.25 inches. All images by Laura Shea, courtesy of Kasmin, New York, shared with permission

vanessa german knows how to translate experiences. In her latest project with the Skinner Museum—Mount Holyoke’s early 20th-century cabinet of curiosities—she explores what decolonization means by interacting with the institution’s 7,000 precious historical objects. german finds past, present, and future in everything from Native American baskets to Samurai swords to pieces of the Great Pyramid of Giza.

By touching these great American valuables, the artist explores ideas of rarity and protection amongst the context of this country’s sordid history with distorting people, objects, and the inherent value of every living thing.

On an episode of The Green Dreamer, Gavin Van Horn from the Center for Humans and Nature talks about flipping our perspective from being head over heels to heels over head, instead privileging touch. “That involves us not just venturing out into the world in a way that we are just grasping what we need but being open. Think of our own porosity…Our skin is just a membrane…it keeps us bound together enough so we can think of ourselves as individuals, but it’s also a constant exchange of information between ourselves and the world around us,” Van Horn says.

german’s solo exhibition, THE RAREST BLACK WOMAN ON PLANET EARTH, began as a quest to own the story of the Skinner Museum by doing what no one else on Earth can do to these precious items: touch them. She found that she was not only grasping for something but that she was moved and found connection through the tactile interactions.  While reaching for objects society deems valuable and in a reality where fat, Black, queer women are not, she was not granted value but instead recognized it already within herself.


“WALK IN BEAUTY” (2022), mixed-media assemblage, 18.75 x 6 x 11 inches each

german translates that revelation into a mixed-media installation and healing site so deeply rooted in place that it captures the concurrence of time. The installation, “MUSEUM OF EMANCIPATORY OBJECTS,” is made up of artifacts and words collected from the Mount Holyoke community related to questions of emancipation.

There is also a sense of freedom and groundedness across the show. In “THE FATHER SHOES,” one shoe has nails that evoke the feeling of digging into the earth, while the other sole features shimmery thread. In the pair, there is “one for leaving and one for coming back,” the artist says. Similarly, “WALK IN BEAUTY” is a sculptural rendition of knee-high boots made of rose quartz. This evokes the physicality of our surroundings (a path, movement, stone) and the emotionality of what such concepts represent in our everyday lives (the journey, the heart). No one story, element, or gift is valued above another. All are woven throughout time.

THE RAREST BLACK WOMAN ON PLANET EARTH is on view at the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum through May 28, 2023. german recently was awarded the prestigious Heinz Award, and you can find more of her work on Instagram.


“FREEDOM IN THE SOUL” (2022), mixed-media assemblage, 31.5 x 21.5 in x 13 inches

Left: Detail of “GRACE” (2022), mixed-media installation. Right: Detail of “INNER FIRE AND JUBILANCE” (2022), mixed-media installation

“INNER AND THE WASHERWOMAN IN THE GARDEN OF EDEN” (2022), mixed-media assemblage, 39 x 26 x 15.25 inches

“WE HONOR THE CYCLE OF CYCLE” (2022), mixed-media assemblage, 27 x 21 x 13.5 inches

Left: “TECHNOLOGY TO TRANSMUTE DEEP SORROW AND DEPRESSION” (2022), mixed-media assemblage, 29.5 x 22 x 11.75 inches. Right: “TECHNOLOGY TO TRANSMUTE RAGE” (2022), mixed-media assemblage, 28.25 x 15.25 x 15.5 inches

Detail of “FUN IS ITS OWN TECHNOLOGY” (2022), mixed-media installation



Art Craft

Realistic Bird Busts and Portraits Slot Pieces of Wood into Jigsaw-Like Sculptures

July 18, 2022

Grace Ebert

All images © T.A.G. Smith, shared with permission

Similar to the decorative art of marquetry, intarsia involves compressing cut pieces of wood into a tight, solid structure. Because of the size of the components, the latter technique produces more three-dimensional forms that tend to be fastened with dabs of glue.

British artist T.A.G. Smith employs this assemblage method when sculpting his small bird busts, portraits, and single feathers encased in boxes. Each piece begins with a digital rendering, followed by Smith carving shapes from myriad types of wood, allowing the color and grain of the materials to determine its placement in the final form. The resulting sculptures, which Smith likens to a jigsaw puzzle, combine anywhere from six to more than 600 individual pieces into sleek, realistic depictions of eagles, hawfinches, and puffins.

Currently, the artist is adding to his series of bird portraits, and you can follow his progress on Instagram, where he also shares information about works available for purchase on Etsy.





Vintage Typewriters Are Reassembled into Amazing Metallic Bird Sculptures by Jeremy Mayer

June 9, 2022

Grace Ebert

All images © Jeremy Mayer, shared with permission

Jeremy Mayer challenges the notion that typewriters’ creative output is confined to the written word. The artist scours shops and trash bins near his Bay Area studio for analog processors in disrepair that he then disassembles, sorts, and reconstructs into metallic sculptures. His previous works include symmetrical assemblages, anatomical recreations, and an ongoing series of birds, the most recent of which are shown here. Mayer builds every piece solely from original parts rather than soldering or gluing, and some sculptures, including the black crow with a Corona-brand typewriter logo on its back, feature spring-like components that allow the creatures to bob their heads.

Mayer is currently at work on a few large-scale reliefs, a kinetic lotus, skull, and additional birds, and you can follow updates and news about purchasing pieces on his Instagram. For more about his practice, check out the 2016 film California Typewriter, which documents his work alongside other enthusiasts.





Nature and Nostalgia Merge in Assemblages Made from Vintage Boxes by David Cass

June 1, 2022

Kate Mothes

All images © David Cass, shared with permission

In the multi-media works of Athens-based artist David Cass, memories and tokens of bygone eras are assembled into compositions that evoke both nostalgia for the past and serve as a reminder of fluctuations in nature due to a changing climate. Cass collects a variety of items like old letters from flea markets, matchboxes, and tins, especially those associated with safekeeping. In some pieces, he accumulates small boxes into larger vessels like cabinet drawers, while in others, the item itself serves as the canvas for original paintings responding to the surface.

An ongoing theme in Cass’ practice is the way attitudes toward nature have shifted in recent generations, describing in a profile about his creative process that “ours is the first epoch in which the natural world has been seen as a problem, as itself in danger.” A recent exhibition called Where Once the Waters, which comprised dozens of tiny painted tins and was shown during the Venice Biennale, focused on a shifting horizon line. Water plays a central role in the connections he draws between past and present, highlighting the changeable nature of the sea and how oceans are rising around the world. A motif of flowing lines signifying the movement of the liquid appears in many of his works, responding to the texture, scale, and patina of each unique object.

You can find more of Cass’ work on his website and on Instagram. (via This Isn’t Happiness)