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Souls Can Grow Deeper Still

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The line of demarcation between “folk” and “fine” art in America is centuries old and extends far beyond the founding of our nation. The former, which includes practices like needlework, woodwork, basket weaving, and ceramics has long been considered the lesser of painting, sculpture, and other works that align with art world standards.

There’s no coincidence these works are often gendered, associated with the home and “feminine” qualities, racialized, classed, thus deemed “unrefined” and considered “skilled labor,” more akin to artisan than artist. 

Black cultural production has been heavily marginalized within the art historical canon. This is especially true of those whose practices have been steeped in vernacular. Somewhere in the midst of the second wave of feminism, gay rights, civil rights, and the subsequent Black power movement, several artists found inspiration in a return to craft.

An example can be seen in Faith Ringgold’s use of textiles for her Feminist (1973-1993) and Slave Rape (1972) series’, both precursors to her story quilts. Though slower to catch on, curators and scholars began turning toward rural roots, expanding critical discourse and establishing pathways through the hierarchical landscape.

 

Missouri Pettway, 1900 – 1981, "Path through the Woods", 1971, polyester knit, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Patrons’ Permanent Fund and Gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation
Mary Lee Bendolph, Blocks and Strips, 2002, wool, cotton, corduroy, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Patrons’ Permanent Fund and Gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation

Created in 2010 by art historian and collector William Arnett, Souls Grown Deep Foundation (SGD) advocates for the inclusion of southern Black artists in the American art historical canon. Initially composed of over 1000 objects and spanning 160 artists, SGD facilitates collection transfers, exhibitions, publications, and other community focused initiatives.

According to foundation curator Raina Lampkins-Fielder, “the story of American Art hasn’t been fully told, particularly, that of African American creativity within museological circles.” She believes these works, ideas, and for some, new languages make for more exciting collections that allow us to reconsider ourselves throughout history and grapple with the nuances of humanity. 

The collection boasts increasingly familiar names like Thornton Dial, Gee’s Bend Quilters, Purvis Young, and Lonnie Holley. All of which, among many others, are featured in the National Gallery of Art’s (NGA) current exhibition, Called to Create

 

Lonnie Holley Burnt Out, 1994 rags and burned wood overall: 236.22 x 292.1 x 15.24 cm (93 x 115 x 6 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Patrons' Permanent Fund and Gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation
Thornton Dial Jr., A Man Can Be a Star, 1988, galvanized ferrous metal, wood, carpet, glasses, and industrial sealing compound on wood, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Patrons’ Permanent Fund and Gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation
Called to Create: Black Artists of the American South exhibition at the National Gallery of Art. Photo by Robert Shelley.
Called to Create: Black Artists of the American South exhibition at the National Gallery of Art. Photo by Robert Shelley.

Showcasing forty newly accessioned objects from the SGD collection, the exhibition spans four galleries in the upper level of NGA’s East Building. Paintings, quilts, works on paper, and sculptures made of organic and found materials fill the first three rooms.

The fourth is an immersive multimedia experience with looped audio and video of the artists making art, building community, and telling stories. Their artistry experiments with form, beautifies the functional, and addresses relevant socio-economic questions of their time and place. Whether we choose to call it abstract expressionism or post-minimalism, the work falls easily into art historical discourse.  

Over the last thirteen years, SGD has participated in several exhibitions and successfully transferred pieces from their collection to over thirty museums. Of these institutions, those that produced shows did so within one of two categories. The first, presented acquisitions as selections from the SGD collection where exhibition scripts relied heavily upon the work’s connection to the “African American South.” The second, created dialog between other artworks from different cultures and time periods while acknowledging the socio-economic conditions from which the SGD works emerged.

Exhibitions at Tate Modern and MFA Boston come to mind as good examples. The commercial side of the industry mirrors this treatment. In January of this year, Christies included works by SGD artists in its Outsider and Vernacular Art auction while Hauser and Wirth presented The New Bend (2022) curated by Legacy Russell who honored members of Gee’s Bend Quilters by placing them in conversation with contemporary textile based artists.

 

Joe Light, 1934 – 2005, Birdman Trainer, 1987, oil-based enamel and spray, paints on wood paneling, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Patrons’ Permanent Fund and Gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation
Georgia Speller, 1931 – 1988, Gloria Jean with Her Old Man and Sally Brown, a Friend Lady, 1987, transparent and opaque watercolor and acrylic with graphite on wove paper, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Patrons’ Permanent Fund and Gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation
Called to Create: Black Artists of the American South exhibition at the National Gallery of Art. Photo by Robert Shelley.
Called to Create: Black Artists of the American South exhibition at the National Gallery of Art. Photo by Robert Shelley.
Purvis Young, 1943 – 2010, Saints, late 1970s, various paints, clear acetate, and wood lathe on laminated paperboard, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Patrons’ Permanent Fund and Gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation

It’s important to acknowledge and celebrate the colloquial nature of works and to cast light in spaces traditionally obstructed by the negative isms. Though, to truly interrogate and understand how the artwork impacts societal themes, beyond the subcategory of yet another subcategory (African American art, African American art of the South) our cultural institutions must be increasingly creative and forward thinking.

In the case of NGA, Called to Create, curated by Harry Cooper, comes four years after its 2018 show Outliers and American Vanguard Art, curated by Lynne Cooke, Sr. Curator of Special Projects in Modern Art, which explored the significance of “folk art” and the relationship between “schooled and self taught” artists across the twentieth century including members from the SGD collection.

The current showing, though primarily meant to celebrate the acquisition, leaves something to be desired in the realm of storytelling. It would have been great to see them contextualized alongside other objects in the museum’s permanent collection or explored through a different lens than the one we’ve been using for years.

As an entry point for visitors unfamiliar with traditionally “othered” works of art, inscribing relevance by way of cross-connectivity allows us to reexamine history in a more inclusive manner, drawing in multiple viewpoints and experiences to cultivate those deeper understandings Lampkins-Fielder is hoping to achieve. 

Fortunately, on March 10th, the museum will host a half-day symposium  including artists and scholars whose practices are in direct conversation with Called to Create. The line-up which includes Lisa Gail Collins and Sanford Biggers looks very promising.

SGD’s ability to achieve their mission in the long-term is bound to the curatorial and programmatic decisions of its partnered organizations. Encouraging exchange and emphasizing intersectionality stimulate new ideas across the field that will ideally, over time, drift into mainstream consciousness.

 

Thornton Dial, Clothes Factory, 1995, mattress frame, rope, carpet, fabric, plastic, enamel, spray paint, industrial sealing compound on canvas mounted on wood, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Patrons’ Permanent Fund and Gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation

All images courtesy of National Gallery of Art.

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