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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

 

 

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Photography

Braids and Bowlers: Indigenous Bolivian Women Skateboard in Style in Celia D. Luna’s Empowered Portraits

January 27, 2023

Kate Mothes

A photograph by Celia D. Luna of an indigenous Bolivian woman skateboarding.

All images © Celia D. Luna, licensed and shared with permission

Against the pastels and earth tones of a skate park in Bolivia, Miami-based photographer Celia D. Luna captures the vibrant energy and determination of women who express solidarity and strength through a love of skateboarding. Part of her series Cholitas Bravas, “Cholitas Skaters” focuses on a group of Indigenous Bolivian women who wear traditional clothes while practicing extreme sports. “I’ve always admired brave women and culture; it’s in my DNA,” she says, describing that her upbringing by a single mother in the Andes Mountains of neighboring Peru instilled an admiration for courage and perseverance.

As recently as the last two decades, Bolivia’s Indigenous Quechua and Aymara women, known derogatorily as “cholitas,” were marginalized and ostracized from society. Distinguished by their long braids, wide skirts, and bowler hats—an amalgamation of styles resulting from Spanish colonizers forcing Indigenous people to adopt European styles during the Inquisition—the style evolved into a symbol-rich, empowered look.

Indigenous Bolivian women were historically banned from entering some public spaces, could not use public transportation, and were burdened by extremely curtailed career opportunities. They have been advocating for their civil rights since the mid-20th century, but it wasn’t until the election of the nation’s first Indigenous president in 2006 that the Cholitas finally achieved some success in restoring their rights, and the pleated skirts, lace blouses, and sombreros prevail as emblems of their cultural roots.

Luna tells Colossal that the women’s choice to don traditional apparel is for “some of them in honor of their ancestors and some of them because that’s what they wear in their everyday life. I was taken by their courage and their love for their culture, and I wanted to capture that.” Her portraits highlight each individual as she skates around the park, gathers together with the group, and poses with her board as she gazes commandingly at the viewer.

“Cholitas Skaters” is one of a trio of sub-series that comprise Cholitas Bravas; the other two chapters focus on female rock climbers and wrestlers. Find more on Luna’s website and Instagram.

 

A photograph by Celia D. Luna of an indigenous Bolivian woman skateboarding.

Left: A photograph by Celia D. Luna of an indigenous Bolivian woman skateboarding. Right: A portrait of a "cholita" wearing a traditional Bolivian lace blouse and a white hate, holding a skateboard.

A photograph by Celia D. Luna of an indigenous Bolivian woman skateboarding.

A photograph by Celia D. Luna of an indigenous Bolivian woman holding a skateboard.

Left: A photograph by Celia D. Luna of an indigenous Bolivian woman skateboarding. Right: A portrait of a "cholita" with her skateboard.

A photograph by Celia D. Luna of an indigenous Bolivian woman skateboarding behind a group of three more women posing with their skateboards.   A photograph by Celia D. Luna of an indigenous Bolivian woman skateboarding. A portrait of an indigenous Bolivian woman posing with her skateboard and flicking her long braid into the air.

A photograph by Celia D. Luna of an indigenous Bolivian woman skateboarding.

 

 



Design

A Chinese Village’s Breezy New Library Uses Traditional Construction Techniques to Make a Social Impact

January 11, 2023

Kate Mothes

A contemporary library building in Pingtan, China, using traditional building techniques.

All images © Condition_Lab and UAL Studio. Photograph by Sai Zhao

Modeled after a traditional Dong timber house, a new local library designed by Chinese architecture firm Condition_Lab highlights the region’s architectural heritage through elegant, contemporary details. Pingtan Book House is located in the village of Pingtan, Tongdao Province, Hunan, and nestles into the courtyard of a primary school that serves 400 children. The studio saw an opportunity to complement the school—a 20-year old blocky, concrete construction—with an addition that was more empathetic to its cultural and natural surroundings.

Condition_Lab conceived of the idea for a pitched, tiled roof and mortise-and-tenon construction from the local vernacular, drawing attention to the region’s disappearing historic construction. “Entire villages built over centuries from a single sustainable material, indigenous China Fir, are rapidly losing their identity,” the studio explains in a statement. “Dong’s cultural DNA is being challenged by contemporary living and the quest to modernize.”

Connection and interaction within the space and with one another is an important facet of Condition_Lab’s ethos. “Social impact does not require large amounts of financial investment, design is not limited to high-end projects, and architecture must have a purpose,” the studio says. To make the interior space inviting for children to explore, sit, and read, the designers devised a unique plan: instead of rooms and doors, the layout consists of two staircases that wrap around one another in a double helix. Landings between staircases provide wall space for books and top-to-bottom windows that peer out into the surrounding landscape. The steps provide seating for the children, with views up and down the three-story structure through airy balustrades.

Condition_Lab focuses on purposeful design as a vehicle to make change, and you can explore more of the studio’s work on its website and Instagram.

 

A contemporary library building in Pingtan, China, using traditional building techniques.

Photograph by Sai Zhao

The interior of a contemporary library building in Pingtan, China, using traditional building techniques.

Photograph by Sai Zhao

Two photographs of a contemporary library building in Pingtan, China, using traditional building techniques.

Left: Photograph by Xiaotie Chen. Right: Photograph by Sai Zhao

A contemporary library building in Pingtan, China, using traditional building techniques, photographed at night.

Photograph by Sai Zhao

Two photographs of a contemporary library building in Pingtan, China, using traditional building techniques.

Left: Photograh by Sai Zhao. Right: Photograph by Xiaotie Chen

A contemporary library building in Pingtan, China, using traditional building techniques.

Photograph by Sai Zhao

A contemporary library building in Pingtan, China, using traditional building techniques.

Photograph by Sai Zhao

A contemporary library building in Pingtan, China, using traditional building techniques, photographed from a distance within the context of the village.

Photograph by Xiaotie Chen

 

 



Photography

In Bold Self-Portraits, Atong Atem Vividly Frames Relationships Between Identity and Culture

September 9, 2022

Kate Mothes

“Self Portrait with Pearls” (2019), Ilford smooth pearl print, 90 x 70 centimeters. All images © Atong Atem, shared with permission courtesy of the artist and MARS Gallery

Since its inception, photography has dominated the way we visually remember and describe the world around us and where we are within it. It has tapped into desire, joy, grief, and superstition, such as in the Victorian era, when some believed it could be a channel between people and spirits in the afterlife. In portraiture, photography immortalizes its subjects and has transformed artists’ ability to express themselves and tell stories. For Ethiopia-born, South Sudanese photographer Atong Atem, who is based in Melbourne, the medium enables a salient exploration of the African diaspora and migrant narratives by focusing on the relationship between figures and the interior spaces they inhabit.

Sometimes referred to as Naarm, Melbourne comprises the traditional lands of the Kulin Nation, itself a collective of five Aboriginal tribes. Paralleling her exploration of the nature of place, culture, and postcolonial narratives, Atem’s series of powerful self-portraits focus on how perceptions of identity are shaped through relationships between place, dress, and custom and the way they change over time or merge when people move. Occasionally referencing art history, such as “Blue Face” modeled after Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” (c. 1665), her works also nod to groundbreaking 20th century photographers Malick Sidibe, Philip Kwame Apagya, and Seydou Keita, who expanded traditions of studio portraiture. In a similar spirit, Atem explores intersections between place, people, and time to create a visual representation of the connection to culture.

This year, the artist’s first book of photographs, titled Surat (Sudanese Arabic for “snapshots”), was commissioned by Photo Australia. The second edition is due to be published by Perimeter next month, and you can find more of the artist’s work on her website and Instagram. (via ART RUBY)

 

“Blue Face” (2021), digital photograph, 100 x 75cm and 32.5 x 43 centimeters

“Self Portrait with Plastic Flowers” (2016), Ilford smooth pearl print, 90 x 70 centimeters

“Self Portrait in July 4” (2021), digital photograph, 90 x 60 centimeters

“Self Portrait with Plastic Flowers” (2016), Ilford smooth pearl print, 90 x 70 centimeters

“Horse Girl” (2016), Ilford smooth pearl print, 60 x 90 centimeters

“Self Portrait on Mercury” (2019), Ilford smooth pearl print, 90 x 60 centimeters

 

 

 



Design History

A New Book Chronicles the 125-Year History of the Button, Its Design, and Its Role in Cultural Change

September 10, 2020

Grace Ebert

The cover of Button Power. All images © Christen Carter and Ted Hake, shared with permission

If something is “fit for the back of a postage stamp,” it’s generally understood as lacking depth and nuance. A similarly sized object, however, has been upending that saying for 125 years. From political campaigns to punch lines to keepsakes, the button has packed bits of incredibly rich history into just a few inches. “It seems like a niche little object, but it really tells a very general American history,” collector and manufacturer Christen Carter tells Colossal. The wearable item is, in fact, an entry point into the complexities of the past.

Carter recently co-authored the forthcoming book Button Power—which is available for pre-order on Bookshop—with notable dealer Ted Hake, who’s been collecting the objects for around 60 years. Through composed displays and black-and-white photos, the tome delves into the item’s history, spanning its invention in 1896 to contemporary usages. “Early on people were wearing buttons, and mostly it’s a temporary thing. It’s a moment in time,” Carter says. “They connected you to something else. One-hundred-twenty-five years ago, images weren’t as prevalent as they are now.” Button Power compiles a diverse array of notable figures, from Shirley Chisholm and the Ramones to Rube Goldberg and Muhammad Ali, each represented through the wearable item.

 

From the Obama Inauguration 2012

Originally a casual collector, Carter now is responsible for the world’s only museum dedicated to the medium, which is housed in the Chicago-based manufacturer Busy Beaver Button Co. The institution currently boasts more than 40,000 buttons and is accepting donations. Currently, it’s closed because of COVID-19, although a virtual archive of about 9,000 is available to scroll through on its site.

A medium with popularity perpetually in flux, the button has risen and fallen since its creation and notably surged in the 1960s and 1980s as it was used more widely for countercultural movements and protests. Of course, mainstream efforts from political campaigns, public figures, and large-scale events generally still sought out buttons to share their visions. Many of the slogans and broader undertakings of alternative movements that may have evaded popular narratives, however, also are preserved by the object. “It’s a people’s history, too. There are so many things I learned,” Carter notes. One example involved a series centered on transportation. “What is this ‘good road’ stuff about?” she wondered. “I learned that before there was income tax, there was a movement to have infrastructure built.” Telling a story she didn’t learn in school, the buttons offered a glimpse into the advocacy of previous decades.

 

While the manufacturing process and function hasn’t evolved much, the objects’ value has. Carter notes that when they first emerged, people regarded them as collectibles that were prized as a piece of printed matter. Today, they remain a symbol of the wearer’s political affiliations and interests.

Even social media hasn’t eclipsed the ephemeral object. Although the pithy messages and quips prevalent on sites like Twitter function similarly to the sayings of the button, they lack a material presence and are subject to being deleted or lost when a platform folds. The physical item, on the other hand, has a lasting effect. “It creates a momento,” she says. “It’s not something you can as easily forget about like a Tweet or something like that because you’ll come across it in your sock drawer.” They’re also a more intentional medium, Carter notes, due to the design, manufacturing, and distribution processes and the effort those require.

 

From 1981

Overall, buttons are overwhelmingly uplifting, inspiring, or humorous in messaging, even when centered on serious topics or issues. One tells people to “hang in there” while displaying a rendering of a cat clinging to a rope nearby, while another (shown below) simply is emblazoned with the words “I Love Ringo.”  The optimism helps to start the inevitable conversations from a constructive point. “More positive buttons make them more wearable,” she says. “A button you have to stand behind. Where online stuff can be pretty anonymous, there’s something about having some skin in the game.”

Despite the mediums’ changes during the last 125 years, the ability to provoke conversation and inspire change is constant.  “The person-to-person stuff is just so important, and I think it’s something we’re missing. I would love for buttons to help bridge gaps between human beings because I think in the end, we all want a lot of the same things,” Carter adds.

 

From 1964

 

 



Design

Not Just For Bookworms: Helsinki’s Oodi Central Library Connects Residents Through Multi-Faceted Cultural Resources

November 8, 2019

Laura Staugaitis

Readers, researchers, and other curious residents are encouraged to gather together in a massive new ship-shaped library in Helsinki, Finland. Designed by ALA Architects, Oodi Central Library, the long and narrow structure features a sweeping wooden exterior topped with two stories of glass walls. Oodi Central Library is situated in the heart of Helsinki, nestled in the capital city’s cultural district. About one-third of the space is dedicated to books. A cafe, restaurant, public balcony, movie theater, recording studios, and a maker-space broaden the institution’s ability to connect with, and serve the needs of, a diverse population.

The effort seems to have paid off: in the library’s first month about two-thirds of Helsinki’s residents visited the library, and it has had 3 million visitors so far in 2019, according to Tommi Laitio, Helsinki’s Executive Director for culture and leisure. Laitio explained in a recent conference talk in Washington, D.C. that it is essential in their small country for people to respect and invest in their fellow residents. “Our society is fundamentally dependent on people being able to trust the kindness of strangers.” (via Kottke)

 

 

 

 

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