Souls Grown Deep Like the Rivers: Black Artists of the American South at the Royal Academy
Souls Grown Deep Like the Rivers: Black Artists of the American South is an exhibition of 64 works from Black artists working in the South Eastern United States in the later part of the 20th century. In collaboration with the Souls Grown Deep Foundation in Atlanta, many of the works are on display in Europe for the first time. With the area and demographic having been cut off from established art practices and teaching – even from art materials – this is art created through need and ingenuity.
Jimmy Lee Sudduth’s Africa, for example, uses mud, blackberry juice, grass stain and white pigment on wood to create a dreamlike depiction of the continent, suffused with longing and the haze of ancestral memory. Above this is a picture of a church by the same artist. Both show worlds other than the artist’s everyday one: one is a place of memory or imagination, one of spirituality. There’s a feeling of putting the consciousness elsewhere than in a harsh reality.
There is a bleakness to a lot of the work, a feeling of trauma and the uncanny – unsurprising when the artists were cut off from even the right to express themselves. Sculptures made from found bits of wood become creatures. Ralph Griffin’s Eagle (1988) with its wings of collected wood, presides over the middle of the second room, the tip of one wing flaring off as though flying. But this strongest symbol of American pride is not quite what it seems: there is an awkward hunch to the shoulders that suggest the opportunist scavenging of the vulture and the necessarily haphazard nature of the materials give the eagle an etiolated, unwell look from certain angles. In its strange way, it’s the most beautiful thing in the exhibition. On the same plinth is Dancers, a sculpture by Eldren M Bailey from the 1960s. The two figures are inextricably linked, limbs one with each other. Made from concrete, plaster and paint, you have to wonder how the artist achieved that effect in unforgiving materials.
Archie Byron’s Anatomy 1 (1987) achieves an interesting illusion. At first glance, it appears glossed into a matte bronze relief but on closer inspection, the relief is made from sawdust and glue. The brain, used to seeing certain materials in galleries, changed the perception to fit the expectation.
This is art of scrap metal and found objects, the detritus of industry presented back to the mainstream in unexpected ways. It shows the need to create is stronger than any obstacle, and is all the more powerful for its visceral urgency. However, the exhibition would have benefitted from more pieces and some more information on these artists and their lives.
Souls Grown Deep Like the Rivers: Black Artists of the American South is at the Royal Academy from 17th March until 18th June 2023. For further information visit the exhibition’s website here.