Double Edged

How can a show of African American art shape our understanding of race in Britain?

Published 23 May 2023

Writer Gary Younge visits ‘Souls Grown Deep like the Rivers: Black Artists from the American South’ and asks how its lessons might be brought closer to home.

  • From the Summer 2023 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    As police turned hoses and unleashed dogs on Black children demanding equality in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, the United States Secretary of State Dean Rusk lamented the impact that America’s racial violence was inflicting on its soft power at a crucial moment. One year after the Cuban Missile Crisis, with the Cold War in the deep freeze, the nation that strode the globe lecturing others – including the newly liberated states in Africa – about freedom and democracy was seen denying those very rights to its own Black citizens.

    “[The] issue of race relations deeply affects the conduct of our foreign policy relations,” said Rusk. “I am speaking of the problem of discrimination… Our voice is muted, our friends are embarrassed, our enemies are gleeful… We are running this race with one of our legs in a cast.”

  • Marlene Bennett Jones, Triangles

    Marlene Bennett Jones, Triangles, 2021.

    Denim, corduroy, and cotton. 205.7 x 157.5 cm. Souls Grown Deep Foundation, Atlanta. © 2023 Marlene Bennett Jones / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London. Photo: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio.

  • Black Americans have always been held in greater esteem outside the US than within it – as true for Martin Luther King and Paul Robeson as it was for Rev. Jesse Jackson and President Barack Obama. In few places has that appreciation been greater than in Europe and in few sectors has it been more evident than in the arts. It was there in the treatment of Richard Wright, Josephine Baker and James Baldwin in Paris and George Gershwin’s opera depicting Black life in Charleston, Porgy and Bess, which during the 1950s toured Italy, France, Britain, Belgium, Germany, Greece, Switzerland and Yugoslavia.

    To that extent an exhibition such as Souls Grown Deep like the Rivers at the Royal Academy does not interrupt what we know about how European institutions engage with African American culture but confirms it. The very affinity which propelled these works – many of which are formidable sculptures crafted from salvaged everyday materials and artefacts – into one of Britain’s most coveted artistic spaces stands in a storied if complex tradition.

    This does not happen by chance. It often takes some distance from the moment, pain and labour for the quotidian to be understood as art – and the filter that makes that transformation possible is rarely in the gift of the artisan.

  • There is a series of struggles, rooted in gender, race and class, that must take place before a quilt can go from a bed in the Deep South to a wall at the RA. It is not simply an act of curatorial ingenuity.

  • In a short story from 1973, Everyday Use, Alice Walker portrays an argument between a newly conscientised, middle-class, Afrocentric daughter and the poor, rural mother she left behind, over one of the mother’s “old quilts”. The daughter, who is visiting, wants them because they are hand-stitched and, she feels, should be hung on the wall. Her mother suggests she take a newer, more practical, machine-stitched quilt. “These old things was just done by me and Big Dee from some tops your grandma pieced before she died,” she explains.

    When the mother refuses to part with them, preferring to save the quilts for the daughter she still lives with who will use them on her bed, the middle-class daughter replies: “You just don’t understand… your heritage.” There is a series of struggles, rooted in gender, race and class, that must take place before a quilt can go from a bed in the Deep South to a wall at the RA. It is not simply an act of curatorial ingenuity.

  • Lonnie Holley, Keeping a Record of It (Harmful Music)

    Lonnie Holley, Keeping a Record of It (Harmful Music), 1986 (detail).

    Salvaged phonograph top, phonograph record, animal skull. 34.9 x 40 cm. Souls Grown Deep Foundation, Atlanta. © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2023. Photo: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio.

  • This European embrace of American artistic talent illustrates a particular capacity to see things related to race more clearly when they are less familiar and further away. There is a tendency, in Europe especially, to understand American racism as a uniquely regionally-sourced artisanal product, like Spanish Rioja or Italian Parmigiano Reggiano, rather than as part of a global system which Britain played a significant role in creating. The closer you get to home the less easy it is to offshore this sense of historical responsibility. The RA’s forthcoming exhibition Entangled Pasts, which seeks to engage with the Academy’s own complicity, illustrates that very challenge. It is easier to export your sense of indignation at racial injustice when you do not feel implicated in the society that makes it possible. Are there Black British artists, and those from former colonies, with analogous stories of exclusion and marginalisation, who might be showcased? (There is really only one answer to this.)

    This is not a competition. True there is limited space: but minority artists will only be fighting each other for it if the racialised imagination of those who own the space is limited also.

    To erect an exhibition of this nature in such a place is engaging, informative and valuable in itself. That, one might reasonably argue, is enough. But we must be careful what claims are made for it beyond that and, perhaps, ask ourselves: “Whom or what does it challenge?”, “What does it risk?” and “How do we bring the lessons inherent in these works closer to home?”

    Gary Younge is a Professor of Sociology at Manchester University. His new book is Dispatches from the Diaspora (Faber).

    Souls Grown Deep like the Rivers: Black Artists and the American South is at the RA from 17 March to 18 June 2023.

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