A black-and-white photo by Jack R. Thornell in the first room of the de Young’s Revelations: Art from the African American South is forever burned in my mind’s eye. A black man lies bleeding on the side of a dusty road. A carefully typewritten note affixed to the print reads: “James Meredith lies wounded beside Mississippi highway 51 after he was shot in an ambush. There is no stone marker showing the spot where Meredith was cut down during his march, but every Negro in Hernando knows where it is.”
All along U.S. Route 51 and the old highways and byways of the South, where so much black blood has been spilled, such stone markers are sorely needed — especially in these days of falling monuments to segregation and white supremacy, most of which were erected in the 1960s. These monuments were, and continue to be, secret signs and signals of constant oppression and terrorism. Poor black people of the South who have seen these monuments, and have lived under that oppression, understand them as terrorism imposed on their visual field, on their language and memory, and have been fighting back by making monuments of their own.
Revelations: Art from the African American South reveals a hidden history of a hidden people and their art of resistance.
That history begins with enslaved Africans new to America’s shores. Their names, language, stories, songs, faiths and customs forbidden, these people in bondage began to preserve what they could remember of their culture — in creations steeped in code. The African trickster spider Anansi became Bre’r Rabbit. Information about the Underground Railroad was transferred through church songs and quilts. And the gods of old were secreted into sculptures and altars composed of junk and detritus, placed in cemeteries and along the roadsides.
This was an intentional “covering” — necessary for survival, just like Br’er Rabbit in his briar patch — always hiding in plain sight. Practiced among the sharecroppers and laborers during Reconstruction, this tradition continues well into the 21st century, and the coded language’s complexity reflects that long-standing tradition.
Which brings us to Revelations. In the 1980s, art historian William S. Arnett began to collect the artworks of undiscovered, self-taught African-American artists. He and his three sons compiled the works over 30 years, culminating in an exhibit and book called Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South, inspired by the Langston Hughes poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”
According to the Souls Grown Deep foundation website, the Arnetts’ mission was to foster scholarship on previously underappreciated African-American artists, establish those artists’ contributions to American art history within universities and museums, and increase public awareness of the works through exhibitions, publications and programming.
The breathtaking display of genius, grit and wit at the de Young shows that the Arnetts’ kept their promise. In February 2017, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco announced its acquisition of 62 works works from from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation (all of which are exhibited in Revelations), filling a gaping hole in the museums’ collection of American art.
For too long, works like those found in Revelations have been relegated to the category of “outsider art,” but outside of what? Historically, the white supremacist world of contemporary museums, galleries and America itself.
So many pieces in the exhibition could easily hold their own next to works by Pablo Picasso or Jasper Johns. In that light, what a waste and tragedy these natural geniuses had to crush their bodies with back-breaking labor instead of being allowed the time, space and resources to create. The artists of Revelations made their works not for money or recognition, but for soul-saving, to share secrets towards deliverance.
Born in Alabama in 1950, Lonnie Holley came into a world of poverty, abuse and neglect. His mother traded the encephalitic six-year old (“My head was so big back then,” Holley says in his bio on the Souls Grown Deep website) for a bottle of whiskey. From there, he was transferred to the home of “Big Daddy,” an alcoholic absentee, and “Big Mama,” who the boy was tasked with feeding every morning. Holley didn’t know what “dead” meant, and so Big Mama’s corpse laid in bed for three days before Big Daddy’s return. The boy was beaten for this, and the beatings escalated. When he attempted to run away, the state always brought him back.
Prison work farms were the first places Holley experienced any sense of liberation in his young life. After 10 years of traveling as a migrant worker up and down Route 51 from New Orleans to Florida, hounded by police and his personal ghosts, he found himself back in Alabama and reconciling with his mother. In the front yard of their anachronistic home (“I found my mother living in a kennel, 1800 settings in the 1970s,” he says), he began to use the art he’d seen so often on his travels to tell his story.
Composed of a mouse-trap, a mouse skeleton, other animal bones, syringes, leaves, organic debris, wood and paint, his piece A Box For Woman: The Pure White Spirit Trapped in Her Space is a heartbreaking meditation on pain, redemption and survival. Holley dedicated this piece to his mother; the small white cross awash in pink is welcoming from a distance, but as you approach it for detail, the signs of hurt and loss emerge. Inside a small frame, there’s a desolate underpinning that begs for introspection and a big heart that demands respect.
Holley’s intimate meditations on the endurance of family in the face of great oppression provide a great contrast to the large, sweeping vision of Thornton Dial, Sr.
Like Holley, Dial was no stranger to hard work and heavy lifting. Born on Luther Elliot’s plantation in Bessemer, Alabama in 1928, Dial was living witness to the disguised chattel slavery system of farmwork and back-breaking labor in practice not long after Reconstruction.
A big man in mind, body and spirit, Dial’s output reflects the immensity of his vision. “My art is talking about the power,” he says on Souls Grown Deep. “It is talking about the coal mines and the ore mines and the steel mills. It is talking about the government, and the unions, and the people that controls the hills and the mountains. The power of the United States is the fuel that carries the United States on. It carries everything, the mills and factories and stores and houses. I try to show how the Negroes have worked in all these different places and have came to help make the power of the United States what it is today.”
The way he approached his art is the way he lived his life, and his Lost Cows — made of cow skeletons, steel, a golf bag, golf balls, mirrors and underwater epoxy putty — not only evokes allusions to the terror of Ku Klux Klan, but also addresses the questions of who leads and who follows. The scale of this piece alone deserves witness, as it conjures images ranging from the four horsemen of the apocalypse to the impoverished promise of an American dream deferred, as witnessed by Dial over his lifetime.
Alongside the quilts of Gee’s Bend, no other artist in Revelations exemplifies the aesthetic of the exhibition as much as Bessie Harvey. Her modified, found wooden sculptures seem to create old gods with new faces, or new gods with old ones. Unlike Dial and Holley, Harvey’s primary focus is the way the spirit moves through both us and the world around us.
Born with tuberculosis, she spent most of her life working in hospitals, and her work focuses on comforting the afflicted, on faith and the spirits that surround us. “I started doing the little people that [God] allowed me to make,” she says on Souls Grown Deep, “and I could talk to them about my problems, and sometimes I would make one and it would look straight at me, in my eyes, and I would ask it questions like, “Who are you? Where did you come from?”
She says of her piece The Poison of The Lying Tongue, “He speaks of the tongue so much of being a thing that will cause us to go down in great sorrow, because the tongue has never been tamed. He speaks that all animals and everything in the earth has been tamed by mankind except the tongue, and it cannot be tamed, tongues coming out of the lying mouth, and it’s saying to the world today, that the tongue can’t be tamed.”
Harvey’s Lying Tongue can be read either as an admonishment or as a riddle. The split-tongue implies this complexity, just as the face is both that of an imaginary friend and a sinister wraith. Harvey captures the spirit world in all its forms, whispered through found wood.
Unlike artists of the established arts world, the artists of Revelations: Art From The African American South all do spirit-work. Some knew they were doing this, some didn’t, but their resilience and resistance shines through regardless. This is the spirit world: wood, scraps of metal, faint scents hiding in the details. The immensity and importance of this exhibit cannot be held in the confines of one essay. This art is not escapist, but it gathers monuments and talismans to aid in the rough journey along the bloody Southern trail. None of us are too far removed from those brutal days and bestial systems that many are trying to force us back into as we speak, which is what makes Revelations a necessary part of a long-overdue conversation.
‘Revelations: Art from the African American South’ is on view at the de Young museum in San Francisco through April 1, 2018. For more information, click here.