Review: Souls Grown Deep Like the Rivers: Black Artists from the American South, Royal Academy 17 March – 18 June 2023
Guest edited by Deborah Nash
Image: Ronald Lockett Sarah Lockett’s Roses (1997), Souls Grown Deep Foundation; ARS; DACS. Image courtesy of Stephen Pitkin
The Royal Academy’s latest show Souls Grown Deep Like the Rivers: Black Artists from the American South is rooted in the precise geography of Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi in the Deep South of the United States, where most of the 34 exhibited African-American artists were born and raised, from the end of the 19th century to the present day.
On display in three rooms are sculptures, paintings, collages and assemblages and, in a dedicated space, the fabled quilts of the Gee’s Bend community of Alabama.
It’s an exhibition that slides neatly into the zeitgeist, as a touchstone of locality and authenticity, mending and recycling, an affirmation of black artists and particularly the art of black women, historically ignored, and a celebration of kinship and home.
Above all, the exhibition is testimony to the human need to create and the satisfaction derived from making and the comfort this making gave in lives often short on comfort.
Most artworks have been lent from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation in Atlanta, which takes its name from a poem by Missouri-born poet Langston Hughes (1902 – 1967):
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
(‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’ 1921)
The Foundation champions the inclusion of Black artists from the Deep South in the canon of American art history and ‘fosters economic empowerment, racial and social justice, and educational advancement in the communities that gave rise to these artists’.
While the land of this region is one of rich soils and long rivers, the African-Americans who worked it during the 19th and 20th centuries, picking the cotton that finds its way into the Gee’s Bend quilts, were the victims of slavery or the descendants of slaves, subject to the segregation of the Jim Crow laws that remained in force until the 1960s and disenfranchised by institutional racism. The Souls Grown Deep Foundation acknowledges the disadvantages many of its artists faced and still face and sounds the alarm on some of the language used to describe their work.
ART OUT OF SCRAP
Image: Thornton Dial Stars of Everything (2004) mixed media , Souls Grown Deep Foundation; ARS; DACS. Image courtesy of Stephen Pitkin
“Art is like a bright star up ahead in the darkness of the world. It can lead people through the darkness and help them from being afraid of the darkness. Art is a guide for every person who is looking for something…” artist Thornton Dial (1928 - 2016) is quoted as saying.
Dial’s Stars of Everything (2004) in the RA’s first room explodes with a constellation of splayed paint tins that surround the stuffed effigy of a tatty American eagle dressed in baggy jeans and cape of mangy grey carpet. Far removed from the stars and stripes of the American flag, the size and shape of this work recalls instead a quilt, as do neighbouring pieces by Dial’s cousin, Ronald Lockett (1965 – 1998).
The materials used in Stars of Everything – the same grungy carpet, worn clothing and scrap metal - reappear across Dial’s other assemblage pieces, such as Mrs Bendolph (2002), a tribute to the quiltmaker Mary Lee Bendolph, whose housetop quilt Burgle Boys hangs opposite. Family names repeat, too, across the walls of these three rooms – Dial, Bendolph, Pettway – a marker of entwined relations and shared histories.
Thornton Dial and Ronald Lockett were related. Dial, the older cousin, was Alabama-born, grew up in great poverty and worked thirty years as a metal-worker at the Pullman Standard plant in Bessemer making railway cars. With keen eyes and resourceful attitude, he began to collect used materials to create his artworks.
“I like to use the stuff that I know about, stuff that I know the feel of. There’s some kind of things I always liked to make stuff with. I’m talking about tin, steel, copper, and aluminium and also old wood, carpet, rope, old clothes, sand, rocks, wire, screen, toys, tree limbs and roots.”
Dial encouraged Ronald Lockett to develop his artistic skills. He was raised by quilter Sarah Lockett, his great-grandmother, in Bessemer and around 1995, both Dial and Lockett became interested in their relative’s quilting. Ronald considered the quilt a magical heirloom, tying generations together in a communal language and process. It’s no coincidence that his assemblage Sarah Lockett’s Roses (1997) resembles a colourful patchwork of orange, yellow, white, red and black plaques, each pinned with a flower cut from the scrap metal.
Gallery view of Souls Grown Deep like the Rivers: Black Artists from the American South, at the Royal Academy of Arts, London. Image courtesy of Royal Academy of Arts, London / David Parry
During the last years of his life, cut tragically short by an HIV-related illness, Lockett turned to rusty tin as a material and made series of pieced together corroded metal panels of earthy browns, sometimes incorporating a grille, that embody the same improvisational spirit as his great-grandmother’s quilts.
A BEND IN THE RIVER
Gallery view of Souls Grown Deep like the Rivers: Black Artists from the American South, at the Royal Academy of Arts, London. L to R: Rachel Carey George Housetop – sixteen-block Half Log Cabin variation; Martha Jane Pettway Housetop – nine-block half-log cabin variation; Loretta Pettway String-pieced Quilt. Image courtesy of Royal Academy of Arts, London / David Parry
Gee’s Bend – officially known as Boykin in Wilcox County, Alabama – is a settlement of some 544 people in the loop of the Alabama river; it is named after Joseph Gee, who purchased the land in 1816 to set up a plantation there. On his death, the land was eventually sold to a relative, Mark Harwell Pettway, who walked his slaves across from North Carolina to pick cotton. Many in the community of Gee’s Bend still bear the Pettway name, and their lives were shaped by unrelenting poverty that continued well into the twentieth century, which is reflected in their quilts. When the women weren’t washing, cooking, chopping wood, drawing water, keeping the yard, they were mending and piecing.
In 1966, the Freedom Quilting Bee sewing co-op was founded in Gee’s Bend as an initiative to bring money into the community by creating quilts for department stores such as Bloomingdales and for order from catalogues.
Nancy Callaghan from the Freedom Quilting Bee says: “Behind every quilt is the battle for economic survival against all the odds. Stitched into each is the full-circle story of the Black race in this country, from slavery to freedom and far beyond. The fingers, the hands, the care, the love and the skill with which a Freedom quilt has been brought into being represent the Southern Black woman at her finest”.
Gallery view of Souls Grown Deep like the Rivers: Black Artists from the American South, at the Royal Academy of Arts, London. L to R: Loretta Pettway Bennett Medallion (2005) cotton & twill; Essie Bendolph Pettway Side Seams (2018) camouflage, denim & cotton. Image courtesy of Royal Academy of Arts, London / David Parry
AN AIRING OF QUILTS
Rachel Carey George Housetop – sixteen-block Half Log Cabin variation (1930s) cotton, denim, wool, rayon. Image courtesy of Deborah Nash
At the RA show, seven Gee’s Bend quilts from different eras hang side by side. The first is a Housetop design by Rachel Carey George (1908 - 2011) dating from the 1930s and its beauty lies in the irregularity of its pattern and its faded hues of tea rose, lilac, grey and washed-out blues that are locked together by a dominant black frame. The delicacy with which each block is sewn to create idiosyncratic pairings of differing strip widths expresses the preciousness of every scrap to the maker. You can imagine how Carey George treasured the tiny oddments of loud colour in the orange, violet and grey, and how she let her needle skip across the geometry of the design, breaking it with curves and circles of stitches in white thread. A patched or blocked quilt such as Carey George’s declares the necessity of thrift in its making. A wealthy family made whole cloth quilts using entire bolts of fabric.
Loretta Pettway String-pieced Quilt (1960) cotton twill, synthetic materials (men’s clothing). Image courtesy of Deborah Nash
Close by, and in sharp contrast, is Loretta Pettway’s String-pieced Quilt (1960) that resembles a hide on the gallery wall, with its long silvery grey triangular segments intercut with ice blue and pale cream. Puckered and creased in places, sections of the quilt seem to strain to release itself from the confines of the lining.
To begin with, Loretta Pettway (1942 - ) was reluctant to sew, which makes her work all the more remarkable: “My grandmama, Prissy Pettway, told me, “You better make quilts. You going to need them.” I said, “I ain’t going to need no quilts.” But, when I got me a house, a raggly old house, then I needed them to keep warm.”
Marlene Bennett Jones Triangles (2021) denim, corduroy & cotton. Souls Grown Deep Foundation; ARS; DACS. Image courtesy of Stephen Pitkin
Marlene Bennett Jones (1947 -) brings the Royal Academy show to a close with her Triangles quilt created in 2021. Here, a map of denim pockets and jean legs ironed out and bordered by triangles and seams of bright red and tan corduroy. There’s a sense of continuity and completeness here. Triangles is made using similar fabrics (denim, cotton) found in Rachel Carey George’s 1930s quilt, but its richness of colour evokes a more joyous mood, where sun-bleached work clothes of hard physical labour give way to brighter, newer, more expensive textiles.
Today, the people of Gee’s Bend have shaped a different story to one they started out with and it is found in these powerful documents of cloth. Increasing international interest grows steadily and an opportunity to learn more comes with the Airing of the Quilts Festival in Gee’s Bend in October, a re-enactment of the custom of taking folded quilts out of storage to air them as winter approaches. Their moment in the sun has truly arrived.
Visit www.royalacademy.org.uk for more information.