Like ancient, dusky rivers

Published 9 March 2023

As we prepare to open ‘Souls Grown Deep like the Rivers: Black Artists from the American South’, writer Yinka Elujoba reflects on the extraordinary creativity of some works in the show.

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

    Like a dream. They’re cutting through space, with air trapped between joined arms and bellies. Their feet are firm upon the green slab but their joints have attained impossible poses, seemingly boneless. The drip around the arms, the thighs, the pleated hair – achievable only through the dabbing-on of hands – culminate in an eternal freshness, like paint, pouring forever.

  • Eldren M Bailey, Dancers

    Eldren M Bailey, Dancers, 1960s.

    Concrete, plaster, paint. 74.9 x 73.7 x 43.2 cm. Souls Grown Deep Foundation, Atlanta. © The Estate Of Eldren M. Bailey. Photo: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio.

  • This is Eldren M Bailey’s Dancers. He sculpted it in the 1960s, among the many works he created publicly, in his garden in Atlanta. The outside was where he loved to work, making art openly where the whole process was visible to anyone passing by. Perhaps this is because the rest of his working life was outside, never in an office: he had first worked on railways before moving on to become a plasterer, a digger of graves, and later, a maker of gravestones. His relationship with the earth must have been intensely intimate – every job he had involved looking downwards, bending, tilling the earth, caressing it, striking it, taking from it, pushing back into it again. It is therefore no surprise that his art is earthy – although made from concrete, plaster and paint, Dancers could as well have been moulded in clay. Practising outside the art school system, and creating work in a manner different from many other (and sometimes more famous) artists from the American South, Bailey imbued his work with a clear earthiness that is perhaps the best way to foreground the artistic lineage of the artists of Atlanta’s Souls Grown Deep Foundation, whose collection is the basis of the Royal Academy’s show.

  • Eldren M Bailey in his sculpture garden in Atlanta, 1986

    Eldren M Bailey in his sculpture garden in Atlanta, 1986

    © The estate of Eldren Bailey

  • The material role of the earth and its machinations in Black American (and therefore the whole of American) history cannot be overstated: first the long trek of captured slaves towards the sea, the climb onto the ships with sand stuck in their feet from the shores, the furious waves of the Atlantic lashing against the slave vessels, the eerie quiet of the Mississippi, the sudden terrifying experience of snow and what must have been for them an abominable cold in their first winter, the endless hours of toil on fields of cotton, and later, the promise of 40 acres and a mule. Jimmy Lee Sudduth’s work embodies this history viscerally in how he uses mud as the background element for much of his work. Africa, from the mid-1980s, depicts a number of figures, their heads bowed, all lined up as though in a procession. What is the green mass behind them? Is it a rush of trees? Is it a slave ship? Sudduth’s use of mud, blackberry juice and grass stains here forges a relationship with the earth that is impossible to destroy.

  • Jimmy Lee Sudduth, Africa

    Jimmy Lee Sudduth, Africa, mid-1980s.

    Mud, blackberry juice, grass stain, white pigment, on wood. 31.8 x 63.5 cm. Souls Grown Deep Foundation, Atlanta. © The estate of Jimmy Lee Sudduth. Photo: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio.

  • It isn’t therefore surprising that during the Great Migration, when over six million Black Americans journeyed out from the South to other seemingly less racially turbulent cities in the North, Midwest and West, many chose to stay in the South still. After generations of working the land, they must have come to the conclusion that it now belonged to them, its ownership earned squarely through blood and sweat. Among the people who chose to remain were, just inside the U of a bend on the Alabama River, a community of sharecroppers working on a cotton plantation that used to belong to Joseph Gee. The bend came to be known as Gee’s Bend, and its residents, unlike the many other Black communities that lost their land and homes to economic circumstances or politically motivated evictions, were able to retain theirs. This unbroken relationship to the earth, the land, meant that cultural traditions like quiltmaking could be preserved.

    But memory too is preserved. Turning towards the material earth, towards rivers, the poet Langston Hughes in The Negro Speaks of Rivers (1921) tries to grasp history in his ode to memories he never had, but that were passed down to him. In this poem, from whose lines the Souls Grown Deep Foundation and the RA exhibition take their names, Hughes was reaching for tangible ancestral knowledge, and his only recourse were earthly elements.

  • I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins…I’ve known rivers: Ancient dusky rivers. My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

    Langston Hughes

  • A few facts about time in the show at the RA: the span of years is almost a century long (the oldest piece is from the 1930s and the latest is from 2021). The oldest artist was born in 1887 and the youngest in 1965. Of the 34 artists exhibited, 23 have passed away and the youngest among them is now close to 60 years old. This is truly a multigenerational show, when we think about time in relation to us. But how did time operate in relation to them and their work?

    There is a photograph on the Souls Grown Deep website, on the page where it describes the quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend. In the picture a woman is centred, holding a quilt in front of a fence on which a row of quilts with various impressive patterns have been draped. Behind this, there is what seems like a solid mass of cloud. The blacks and whites of the scene blur into each other. Nothing is sharp in the picture, even its surface appears to be fading away, like a distant memory. There is no date or place attributed to it on the webpage, and so the only thing the viewer might know for sure when looking at it is that a lot of time has passed between that photograph and the present.

  • African American quilts in the vicinity of the Alabama River (possibly Gee’s Bend)

    African American quilts in the vicinity of the Alabama River (possibly Gee’s Bend)

    Photograph attributed to Edith Morgan, c.1900.

  • Pick a date, perhaps a day in 1967 – the same year that the village of Gee’s Bend finally got the single road that led in and out of it paved, around the time when whites in the nearest city of Camden decided to shut down the ferry service because they didn’t want the people of the Bend to cross the river to register to vote. Let’s make the season autumn, when the year’s cold is finally beginning to set in. Wind around the houses in the Bend. Trees whispering. Imagine a woman, after a long day of participating at a Civil Rights march who has just returned home to make dinner for her children. Her husband has died a few years ago, leaving her alone to take care of the four of them. Something sweet boiling on the stove. When she senses the wind, she rushes outside to take off the quilts she had made and put out to dry. She has lost a couple of quilts this way before, to the wind. But this set she cannot afford to lose. They are made out of men’s clothing – her husband’s in fact – and alongside providing warmth in the winter they are a memento to a man who didn’t own much property in his lifetime. This is a plausible backstory for the photograph, or one like it, through which we might build some interiority into the lives of some of these artists. Yet looking closely at the works might teach us even more.

    Housetop – sixteen-block Half Log Cabin variation, the oldest work in the show, created by Rachel Carey George in the 1930s, is a continuous tumble of geometric lines that become more intricate towards the lower right. All bound within an intelligent but subtle multicoloured border, the fine mesh of colours makes it hard to notice that there is a kind of offset between the rows, especially between the first and the second. The colours are extraordinarily soft, like sunset, and even when she veers off the palette like in the magenta or blue or orange, she uses very little of them so that they resemble the final streaks of sunlight before the day ends.

    Compare Carey’s work to another quilt with a similar name, this time Housetop – nine-block Half Log Cabin variation, by Martha Jane Pettway, from around 1945. Here the artist’s sense of order and space is immediately apparent – her lines form a well-defined pattern, with shapes so universal that this piece will immediately be familiar to any viewer from anywhere in the world. Yet the genius of Martha Jane Pettway’s work – besides the tremendous skill required to make such a neatly put together quilt by hand – lies again in her choice of colours: an already butter-coloured material for the base; a green that is not quite as light as a lemon but not too dark, more like the green of grass or of healthy leaves of corn; punctuations with the red of a lipstick; and a pale blue the colour of the sky.

  • Martha Jane Pettway,  'Housetop'— nine-block 'Half- Log Cabin' variation

    Martha Jane Pettway, 'Housetop'— nine-block 'Half- Log Cabin' variation, c. 1945.

    Corduroy. 182.9 x 182.9 cm. Souls Grown Deep Foundation, Atlanta. © Estate of Martha Jane Pettway / ARS, NY and DACS, London 2023. Photo: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio.

  • Proceeding chronologically, something interesting begins to happen with the names of the quilts in the exhibition. The two earliest were named after parts and portions of buildings. Flora Moore’s, from 1975, has a similar name but drops the word ‘Housetop’ and is simply titled Log Cabin variation. From the 2000s Loretta Pettway Bennett’s piece is named Medallion, after a small object way smaller than a cabin, while Essie Bendolph Pettway’s Untitled, from 2018, and Marlene Bennett Jones’ Triangles, from 2021, have entirely abstract titles. Perhaps there was a consideration of the move from the material to the abstract in the curation of the work, how the quiltmakers in the earliest days would have thought about their creations versus how their thoughts and philosophies progressed over the ages, providing us with another measure of how time has passed at Gee’s Bend.

    Because the Bend was relatively isolated for a long time, it perhaps houses some of the oldest, unbroken Black American traditions in the United States. The first quilts must have been made out of necessity: the need to find warmth for the quilters’ families during harsh winters. Scraps from worn out garments of denim, corduroy and so on must have formed the base for the first ones. Yet when the women began putting them together their artistic impulses must have been stirred, and they would certainly have begun to make aesthetic choices, which would later help them develop a full art form that their descendants could inherit. From this those descendants could formulate a philosophy whose influence extends outside of quiltmaking even. In his 1997 piece Sarah Lockett’s Roses, made from tin and wood, Ronald Lockett uses the formal qualities of quiltmaking to memorialise the quilter Sarah Lockett, who was his neighbour and great-grandmother. Using five distinct colours layered on tiles that interlock and overlay each other, Lockett is able to create an intricate quilt-like block of patterns that pay homage to this woman, her art and the three generations she helped raise.

  • The range of materials in the RA exhibition is stunning, especially in the works that use found or salvaged items to create assemblages. Tree stumps, metal roofing sheets, sawdust, plastic eyes, hats, chairs, door frames, drainpipes, TV sets, everything seems present all at once in the show.

    One of these profound assemblages, by Lonnie Holley, has a door leaning on a wooden chair – Spirit of the Man by the Chicken House Door from 1984. Hanging from the chair back is a metal can with a spoon hooked over the handle. The chair’s seat, which was originally made of a mesh of raffia-like material, has eroded and fallen apart. The door still has its hinges with the nails bent as though it had been ripped out of the doorframe. Like this work, many in the show in this category are sophisticated compositions that explore or reimagine parts of daily life – such as Joe Minter’s Where is my Hammer? from 1996. Sometimes the artist leaves a subtle political message, as in Holley’s Copying the Rock, from 1995, where a rock sits on the extended plate of a damaged copier, which bears an inscription that seems to read “ITS LiKE I AM Living In HEll”. It’s hard to decipher what exactly Holley is referring to here, but one can hazard a guess that it is perhaps the condition of living in the United States as a Black person.

  • Lonnie Holley, Spirit of the Man By the Chicken House Door

    Lonnie Holley, Spirit of the Man By the Chicken House Door, 1984.

    Wooden chair, door, metal can. 116.8 x 90.2 x 43.2 cm. Souls Grown Deep Foundation, Atlanta. © 2023 Lonnie Holley / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London. Photo: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio.

  • Yet not all political messages are oblique. Thornton Dial – known primarily for his sculpture and who has the most works in the show – makes it clear what he wants to talk about in two of his drawings via their titles. Although made 13 years apart, Slavery (2009) and Cotton Field (1996) feature similar elements: twirling figures outlined in graphite. In Slavery, a woman is surrounded by animals – birds and what seems to be a horse – and a field. There is a billowing wind, and the turmoil in the drawing is palpable. Elsewhere, materials do the talking. In his 1995 sculpture Testing Chair (Remembering Bessie Harvey), Dial uses found materials (tree roots, metal, corrugated tin, wire, enamel, spray paint, Splash Zone compound) to weave a shiny silvery chair with splashes of gold into a seat surrounded by thorns. The artist Bessie Harvey who he commemorates, and whose 1987 work Untitled is present in the RA show, was a master sculptor who used tree roots and branches to create assemblages. In employing Harvey’s signature material Dial refers to an age-long problem Black artists have faced: the tokenisation of Blackness, so that a few sprinkles here and there in major conversations result in limited opportunities, where only one artist can usually be chosen for a category in a show. The art world had set Dial and Harvey against each other, and Testing Chair is how Dial pays respect to Harvey while simultaneously confronting what is both an internal and external fracas.

  • There are more important things to think about than whether Vincent van Gogh was self-taught, for example. No-one really cares.

    Yinka Elujoba

  • How will Britain receive this show? What does it mean that these works by artists who often started quietly, usually in rural communities – with little access to the global art world, its designs, and many times even its history – will end up showing in London at the Royal Academy of Arts?

    There is of course the temptation to immediately begin to compare some of these artists to more popular European or American ones, especially where similarities are apparent. Although evidently more acrobatic, Bailey’s Dancers, for example, cuts through space like a Giacometti, but Bailey hardly ever left Alabama and may never have heard of Giacometti. The quilts might remind one of Frank Stella’s abstractions or Agnes Martin’s mystical array of grids, although the tradition began centuries ago. Mary T Smith’s work might make one recall Basquiat, which would make sense since he was said to have offered a collector his work in exchange for a few pieces by Smith, and although, as the story goes, the collector refused, Basquiat remained in awe of the artists from the South and much of his own artistic impulses drew from their well.

    Rushing to label would also not make sense; these are artists whose works have endured all kinds of categorisations: folk art, self-taught art, vernacular art, forgetting that in the beginning all art was folk art, and all artists were self-taught. There are more important things to think about than whether Vincent van Gogh was self-taught, for example. No-one really cares.

    Here is an opportunity to consider and engage with serious work created out of tenacity, grit, sweat and blood, survival, hope, deep reckoning with a bitter history, a journeying towards the inner heights of what makes us human. Even more importantly, these are works created by people who have considered themselves simply as artists, without any labels. Their concerns have been the concerns of artists anywhere in the world: aesthetics, skill, craft, politics, wit, philosophy. It is on this scale that this show must be measured. Anything else will not suffice.

    Yinka Elujoba is an art critic and writer based in New York.

    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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