Start here: Souls Grown Deep like the Rivers
Published on 17 February 2023
Before you visit our latest exhibition, find out about the unique artistic traditions the artists in ‘Souls Grown Deep like the Rivers’ forged and the enormous social and economic challenges they confronted.
A bald eagle crafted from a root and salvaged driftwood; a geometric quilt of blue denim offset by red corduroy; an animal skull with a hollow-eyed stare, mounted on chipped vinyl and a rusting record player. Souls Grown Deep like the Rivers is full of striking masterpieces, often assembled from unexpected materials.
This is an exhibition of artworks by 34 Black artists from the American South. It explores the unique artistic traditions which have developed over generations in this region, traditions in which artists use readily available tools and objects to consider aesthetics, history, politics, community and place. With their works, these artists confront the harrowing history of enslavement in the deep South and the everyday realities of racism and economic inequality in America.
Like much great art, the work in this exhibition is personal and universal, using individual stories and experiences to express what it is that makes us human.
Art is the one way man can have a common thread that would connect the hearts of all people. Art is for universal understanding.
Black artists from the American South
The artists live and work in the American South, from communities in South Carolina to the Mississippi Delta, in isolated rural areas like Gee’s Bend, Alabama, and in urban centres like Atlanta, Memphis and Miami. The impact of Southern landscapes can be felt in much of the work, sometimes literally as several artists use organic materials like mud and salvaged wood taken from the land around them.
The harrowing history of the region can be felt in the work too. Enslaved people were brought to the South from Africa through the barbaric transatlantic slave trade, where their forced labour fuelled the economy and shaped the landscape. When slavery was abolished in the United States, local laws in the American South, known as the Jim Crow laws, introduced racial segregation.
Born between 1887 and 1965, many of the artists in the exhibition grew up during the Jim Crow era. Their work confronts the legacy of slavery and the inequalities Black people in America continue to experience. Some pieces present graphic depictions of the violence enacted against Black people, others celebrate the African traditions artists had inherited or studied. Souls Grown Deep like the Rivers addresses the history of racism, exploitation and inequality in the American South and its lasting impact today.
With little access to formal art education, the works shown in the exhibition were made by artists who developed their own artistic practices by learning from neighbours, friends and family.
Some used skills they developed when working in industry such asThornton Dial and Joe Minter who were metalworkers. These skills were handed down – Dial trained his sons Thornton Dial Jr and Richard Dial and nurtured the talents of his younger cousin Ronald Lockett.
For the women of Gee’s Bend, learning to sew and make quilts was a creative tradition, passed down through generations in their remote Alabama community. Loretta Pettway Bennett recalls learning to sew by helping her mother and grandmother make quilts.
The artists in Souls Grown Deep like the Rivers aren’t part of a formal artistic group but they share much, including bonds of friendship, family and place. Having worked almost entirely without recognition from the wider art world, their works are intensely local in terms of materials, subject and audience, while also drawing on themes of race, sexuality and politics that are global in nature.
He helped me to find out that you could take tin or barbed wire or different small little metals and make things out of them. All the pieces that I made are primarily because of him…
Ronald Lockett on the influence of Thornton Dial Sr
Many of the artists made their work out of found and salvaged materials. Often without access to conventional art materials, they learnt to be creative with the objects they found around them.
You will find a remarkable range of materials in the exhibition, from rusted tools and empty tins to driftwood, roots and planks; from bones and stones to scrap metal and electrical appliances.
In the hands of these artists, objects which have been thrown away or ignored are reclaimed and transformed into works of art. This transformation becomes part of the message of the work, a triumph of imagination over racism and economic deprivation. This has resulted in some of the most powerful paintings, sculptures, quilts and assemblages of the twentieth century.
Often the works themselves weren’t shown in a ‘traditional’ way.
Yard shows are large-scale, site-specific art installations constructed around the homes of artists. This is a distinctive tradition of African American artists working in the South. It came about during Jim Crow era segregation as a way for Black artists, who were systematically shut out of the art establishment, to display their work on their own terms.
One of the best surviving examples of a yard show is Joe Minter’s African Village in America, a vast sculpture garden on the outskirts of Birmingham Alabama. The works in his yard as well as his independent sculptures address 400 years of American history, and the violence, injustices and racism that Black people have been subjected to through the centuries.
I came to realise that my mother, her mother, my aunts, and all the others from Gee’s Bend had sewn the foundation, and all I had to do now was thread my own needle and piece a quilt together.
Loretta Pettway Bennett
Like other artists featured in the exhibition, the quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend originally made their works using salvaged materials, in this case worn out work clothes, offcuts of fabric from nearby factories and other locally acquired textiles.
There has been a quiltmaking tradition among the women of Gee’s Bend for generations and it continues to this day. Triangles, a quilt made by Marlene Bennett Jones in 2021, offsets geometric patches of denim against red corduroy which has been recycled from a quilt made by her mother. By making the origins of the fabric clear – several pockets feature prominently – the piece celebrates the history of reusing salvaged fabrics.
In recent years the vivid, multi-layered textile works by the women artists of Gee’s Bend have been recognised as an important chapter of modern art in America. Gee’s Bend quilts are part of the collections of galleries and museums, including the National Gallery of Art, Washington and Tate.
These quilts, like many of the works in Souls Grown Deep like the Rivers, are belatedly getting the recognition they deserve as important artworks. This exhibition is an opportunity to be moved by these modern masterpieces and the stories behind them.