In the aftermath of the Civil War and the Great Migration, black communities in the Deep South of the United States shared in modes of alternative artistic expression that came to form a rich creative culture. The RA’s latest exhibition presents a collection of works created in these communities, trying to bring to attention an artistic tradition that has rarely been acknowledged by the academy. These artists worked far outside the traditional art world, without formal training and little access to resources and materials. Their work with scavenged or reused material carries the presence of these circumstances into the gallery, speaking of painful histories, persisting marginalisation and community perseverance.
Thornton Dial’s expressive, three-dimensional work really shines in this first room, as his largest pieces form the visual focal point. 2004’s ‘Stars of Everything’,’ a collage of spray paint and spray paint cans, draws you in through its central figure: old clothing shapes a humanoid eagle, bound by rope to create an image suspended between tangible experience and national symbols.
Just to the right, Dial’s work is broken up by Mary Lee Bendolph’s ‘Burgle Boys’, a product of the famed quilting community in Gee’s Bend, Alabama. This particular work, composed of vibrant rectangular shapes in soft fabric, has been placed here instead of the later quilting section, apparently due to Dial’s admiration of Bendolph's work. His 2002 work ‘Mrs Bendolph’, in which his signature dark assemblage meets fabric artistry, is confusingly hung on the other side of the room and leaves you to rifle through your exhibition catalogue to locate it. A conversation of community influence, which could be so brilliantly demonstrated here, sadly falls short.
With the presentation of Mary T. Smith’s ‘He’ - a minimalistic depiction of Jesus and the cross in scrap metal located at the end of the room - these flaws with the exhibition truly come to the surface. Where Dial and Bendolph’s large scale works manage to hold up fine against the dreary, very ‘modern art gallery’ background, Smith’s work is almost swallowed by it. Her work constitutes the exhibition’s first foray into the Yard Show, a presentation strategy necessitated by the artists’ ‘outsiderness’ to the art world in which works were displayed within the community, on porches and outdoor settings. While the RA seems eager to tell us all about this approach, little is done to accommodate art created in and for such a setting.
Under the title ‘Personal Stories, Local Sources’, the second room focuses on the community ties that underlie much of the artists’ work. In a continuation of the uncanny figures in Dial’s work, James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas’s funerary figures and portrait busts use a combination of plaster and human hair, reflecting his profession as a grave digger. The relationship between labour and artistic endeavours is mapped through these sculptures, located somewhere between shock and fascination.
Similarly, the paintings of Jimmy Lee Sudduth emerge from the specific context of rural labour, as his use of mud, grass stain and berry juice creates land- and cityscapes alike. The imposing presence of 1988’s Atlanta, combining a depiction of urban space with a grounding through natural resources, creates connections across the room in processing the locality of the American South. Here, the aesthetic and community relationships between the artists are competently balanced, lending a coherence to the space that is lacking elsewhere.
The final room returns to the Yard Show, this time including a three minute video showing Joe Minters’ outdoor installation ‘African Village in America.’ The decades-long project, integrated into a neighbourhood in Birmingham, Alabama, offers a glimpse at the contexts in which many of these works would usually be displayed. Alongside the small screen, Minter’s standalone sculpture ‘And He Hung His Head and Died’ could be so striking - three sharp metal crosses arranged to allude to Golgotha, offering religious expression grounded in industrial material - but once again, the grey walls do the silver sculpture no favours.
The other side of the room offers perhaps the most successful communication of gallery space and display, as Purvis Young’s vibrant paintings on wood planks are finished with self-fashioned wooden frames. His constructions demonstrate a conscious play with the traditional art world, and they break up the space remarkably effectively, granting continued visibility to the historical exclusion that marks all the artists’ practice.
Just as affecting is the return to Gee’s Bend’s quilting tradition at the end. The recent works of Essie Bendolph Pettway and Marlene Bennet Jones shine in their highly adept use of scrap fabric, fashioning the denim, camouflage, and cotton of workers’ clothes into vibrant fabric assemblages. The material continues to ground he work, connecting the communities from which it emerged on physical terms as the artists’ names tell of familial ties.
Across the board, the art on show here is brilliant - demonstrating pure creativity and expression as a tool for addressing personal, community, and historical struggle. It’s vitally important that these works are shown more widely, and that larger audiences can finally begin to learn about the artistic cultures of the black south . Unfortunately, these projects always bring with them the tension of ‘fitting’ non-traditional art into very traditional, very established locales. The challenge that a gallery like the RA faces here is to adapt to presenting this kind of work; to think about how the art world must change beyond simply including a wider range of artists. But it seems like at least this time, the academy remains static.
'Souls Grown Deep Like the Rivers' is at the Royal Academy of Art until 18th June.
25 & Under Tickets from £6.50
All Photographs by Isabel Imhorst
Edited by Samuel Blackburn, Art Editor