Souls Grown Deep like the Rivers review: a must-see show


In the sculpture Copying the Rock (1995), Lonnie Holley took a battered photocopier, placed a rock on the scanner, and scribbled under the cover: “It’s like I in living in hell.”

Holley, who was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1950, has described the motivation for the work in the context of the history of black communities, particularly in the southern states. “We humans had a tough time, but we fought through it,” he said. But technology, symbolized by the copier, brings “new problems” and “we can’t just copy the past. We have to deal with the new.”

So this weighty stone could be a gesture of defiance or a symbol of the weight in addressing injustices facing African American communities and the long history that informs them. And they are the background for all the work in Souls Grown Deep like the Rivers.

Thornton Dial, Stars of Everything, 2004. Mixed media, 248.9 x 257.8 x 52.1 cm. Souls Grown Deep Foundation, Atlanta.

/ Estate of Thornton Dial / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London 2023. Photo: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio

The exhibition focuses on 34 black artists from the Southeastern United States from the mid-20th century to the present whose work is imbued with the harrowing resonance of slavery, the segregationist Jim Crow laws and their legacies.

Artists like Holley are only now getting the attention they deserve after decades of working with little recognition. And the materials he uses are emblematic of much of this show: worn out and discarded, salvaged and recycled into profound new creations.

It could be the sculptural collages of Holley and other Alabama artists like Thornton Dial and Joe Minter, or the quilts made from denim, corduroy, and other scraps of fabric made in the same state’s rural community of Gee’s Bend, or paintings on raw wood Made in Florida by Purvis Young.

These are works that are not created in academies and studios, but in families and communities, in kitchens and on verandas. They have not been widely shown until now art halls and museums, but in courtyards and kitchens.

It is art created in urgent, direct response to social and material circumstances, full of fear and hope. Dial described art as “a bright star far above in the darkness of the world…a guide for every human being who is searching for something”. For Minter, it’s “the only way people can have a common thread that connects the hearts of all people.”

Joe Light, Blue River Mountain, 1988. Enamel on panel, 81.3 x 121.9 cm. Souls Grown Deep Foundation, Atlanta.

/ ARS, NY and DACS, London 2023. Photo: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio

But the exhibition is frustratingly limited; I wanted a lot more. The 64 works come largely from a single source, the US-based Souls Grown Deep collection, and are displayed in the limited space of the Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler Galleries rather than the large main galleries.

Very few artists like Dial and Holley are explored to the depth hoped for. Many are only represented with one or two works. The entire Gee’s Bend quilt-making story, with its brilliant variations on housetop and blocks and strips quilts (the improvised shapes are known as “My Way” quilts), is given half a gallery, with a total of eight pieces throughout the show.

Added to this is the difficulty of translating the energy of the work and its original presentation. The design is perhaps too elegant given the rawness, even brutality, of the materials and techniques on display. One gets the feeling, for example, that Holley’s Copying the Rock could be standing squarely on the floor here, rather than on the polite pedestal it has been.

However, for work alone, this is a must-see show. One just has to hope that a more comprehensive one will follow not far behind.

Royal Academy of Arts, until June 18; Souls Grown Deep like the Rivers review: a must-see show

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