The current exhibition at the RA is unique because it doesn’t centre any particular artistic movement or artist. Instead, the art it exhibits was produced by a selection of Black artists who are grouped together for not having participated in the 20th century historical event known as the Great Migration. While a large percentage of the Black communities in the deep South migrated to more northern states in the U.S between 1930 and 1970, the artists that the RA here chooses remained in the American South.
I am interested by this. Does the exhibition therefore consider a sort of counter-history, is it treating the historically tangential? If so, I envision it like this: if a historical event were a shape, then this exhibition considers the space around this shape – the ‘negative space’ of history.
Upon entering the exhibit one is immediately confronted with the use of a lot of scrap metal, assemblage sculpture, earthy pigments and materials, and craft-like techniques. Not having known what to expect, my first reaction was to compare these aesthetics to the Italian art movement, Arte Povera, and other similar aesthetics that pertained to the 1960s and 1970s, such as that we saw in Noah Purifoy’s 66 sigs of neon exhibition (1966) in Los Angeles. However, although the exhibition at hand includes work which was made during these same years, one of its features is that it includes art from across the 20th century and beginning of the 21st century. In fact, delving into how the exhibition embraces a broad time period uncovers how my initial comparisons completely miss the point.
The formal styles that I picked up on at first are informed by these artists’ choice to address the violent history of slavery, racial inequalities, and the social marginalisation of Black communities, while rooting these themes in their everyday experience of the deep South. Religion, music, and the African traditions with which these artists were actively reconnecting, are all interwoven into their often stark style. Referencing back to the broad time period of the exhibition, it becomes clear that at its crux it strives to demonstrate the cycles of oppression, resilience, family and tradition that these artists faced across time.
By bringing forward the ‘negative space’ of history, ‘Souls Grown Deep like the Rivers’ prompts one to consider how art history has failed to account for artistic expressions of experience that aren’t defined by novelty or fleetingness. In this instance, we are presented with reactions to race inequalities that can’t be expressed by a contained movement or ‘shape’ because of their very repeated and systemic nature. While we may know that individual historical periods are often used to delineate the story of art history, we don’t always realise what we are missing. The current exhibition at the RA does an excellent job to shed light on the expansive potential of thinking about art history across new planes of time and experience, waking us up from the pretty shapes we are used to literally as well as metaphorically.
Featured Image: Lonnie Holley, Keeping a Record of It (Harmful Music), 1986. Salvaged phonograph top, phonograph record, animal skull, 34.9 x 40 cm. Souls Grown Deep Foundation, Atlanta. © 2023 Lonnie Holley / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London. Photo: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio
Review by Michela Giachino
Since studying History of Art at The University of Oxford Michela has continued to pursue her interests in art and culture. She particularly enjoys considering how contemporary and historical art forms are presented to the wider public through exhibitions and viewings at art institutions. Michela’s favourite mediums include photography, film, painting and drawing, and she is always excited to learn about new art.
Read Michela’s latest review here Review: Christine Sun Kim: Edges of Sign Language- ‘Canvases as multifaceted explorations’- Somerset House, until 21 May – Abundant Art
For more information and tickets Souls Grown Deep like the Rivers | Exhibition | Royal Academy of Arts
Drawing its title from the work of Langston Hughes, Souls Grown Deep like the Rivers brings together sculpture, paintings, reliefs, drawings, and quilts, most of which will be seen in the UK and Europe for the first time. It will also feature the celebrated quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend, Alabama and the neighbouring communities of Rehoboth and Alberta.
Artists include Thornton Dial, Lonnie Holley, Ronald Lockett, Joe Minter, Hawkins Bolden, Bessie Harvey, Charles Williams, Mary T. Smith, Purvis Young, Mose Tolliver, Nellie Mae Rowe, Mary Lee Bendolph, Marlene Bennett Jones, Martha Jane Pettway, Loretta Pettway, and Henry and Georgia Speller.
Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London in collaboration with Souls Grown Deep Foundation, Atlanta.
This exhibition contains images that some visitors might find upsetting. Please contact us for more information.