Drive down any country road in the South, from Virginia to East Texas, through any area populated primarily by African Americans, and if you look carefully you can still see evidence of a highly evolved, complex system of outdoor art, in existence since the days of slavery. You will have to look closely, or you will not see it. It is as if a secret language has been inscribed on the Southern landscape.
In the African American South there is a sophisticated and esoteric visual system of communication, built around materials and found objects with consistent symbolism and concealed meanings, that came into being for the purposes of recording, preserving, and disseminating ideas and information. That artmaking process transformed over centuries into a widespread tradition that in the twentieth century spawned some of the greatest visual arts produced by any culture.
When black Africans debarked from slave ships, they became part of a system that stripped them of every aspect of personal and cultural identity. They were separated from their ethnic groups, their families, their religions, their philosophies, their history and heritage, their languages, their personal possessions, and even their names. Dislodged from everything except their memories, from everything that could give them pride in themselves or loyalty to anyone other than their slave masters, New World blacks began to create a new heritage, a new identity, a new culture, as personalized and individualized as is possible among an enslaved population.
For the signposts of this new cultural identity to endure and survive, they had to avoid detection. A private language of philosophical and theological concepts had to be woven into an array of art, music, and oral literature, among many other things. The music was safe. It was sung in privacy, and lyrics could be altered according to who was present. Even if white people heard them, they probably did not understand the words, much less their meaning, much less the subtle messages encoded in the rhythms. Folktales and other forms of oral literature were similarly secure. But art had a physical presence. Abstraction and disingenuous explanations could safeguard it but could not totally conceal it. To be protected it needed to be placed where it would not likely be seen. So the cultural heritage contained within the visual arts survived by being put in the graveyard. White people, either out of respect for the dead, or more likely fear, generally stayed away from black cemeteries.
As art gradually made its way from the cemeteries to the woods to the backyards and ultimately to the front yards, it became larger and more overt, but maintained its secrecy by seeming to be unstructured, being composed of unattractive materials, and being characterized by a strange aesthetic, at least, strange for its time and place. That secret language barely exists today, but along the sides of Southern roads there are still a few big piles of “junk,” built with surprisingly consistent ingredients: nonworking appliances, bottles, broken furniture (especially chairs), stones, bricks, pots and pans, and so on. These junk piles were created, carefully and meticulously, by African Americans who were, for instance, farmers, factory workers, preachers, tradespersons, schoolteachers, and (these days) old people collecting government subsidies; in short, anyone with an artistic temperament who wanted to make a public yet safe statement. Such junk piles have been in existence for centuries. They were intended to be stationary and visible to members of the community, and they generally lasted the duration of the artist’s lifetime. Though the message or philosophy contained within the junk pile may have been understood fully only by the maker, the vocabulary has been a widely shared one. Junk piles were among the seeds from which grew the pieced (patchwork) quilt, the found-object assemblage, and the work of visual artists like Lonnie Holley, Joe Minter, and Thornton Dial.
Alongside the back roads of the South there have been thousands of junk piles that some art critics would recognize as some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced; and in rural yards, and plenty of urban ones, there have been many thousands of assemblages—freestanding, or hanging from trees, or attached to fences and houses—that some critics also would recognize as some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced; and inside menial dwellings there have been countless charms, homemade utilitarian objects, shrines, arrangements (of things), handmade articles of clothing, and of course quilts, that would also be recognized as some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced.
Go explore the Southern countryside. Don’t look just for junk piles, or found-object sculptures, or quilts. Examine the graves, churches, barns, animal pens, chicken coops, doghouses, birdhouses, mailboxes, refuse containers, piles of stones and bricks and cinder blocks, walkways, scarecrows, signs, fences, gates, window dressing, playhouses, gazebos, graffiti (the rural Southern kind), clotheslines and the positioning of clothes hanging from them, bundles of sticks and branches, clusters of bottles and cans, property lines defined by painted half-buried automobile tires, flowers and plants juxtaposed to create color-field vistas, incongruous objects—a kitchen utensil, a toy, a shoe, an empty picture frame—placed or hanging, as a piece of conceptual art, in an entirely unexpected setting, a nonfunctioning light bulb or fan or pump equally incongruous in its hidden placement...
Every improvisational quilt, every barn, every piece of yard sculpture, is a potential Rosetta Stone. They are among the components of one of the most highly evolved systems of preserving information (without revealing it openly) that exists anywhere. Every combination of colors, materials, and forms can, and often does, contain data that can be imparted in some manner or another to everyone, like the Eleusinian mysteries according to his or her ability to comprehend. Drive through the South when quilts are being given their spring cleaning and are being hung to dry on fences and clotheslines, and you can see a wonderful thing happening out in the open: quilts and artistic “patchwork” barns in a visual call-and-response, like an art-historical conversation between genders.
Primarily African in origin, infused with heavy European and Native American influences, and yet thoroughly and uniquely American, the art discussed herein has been evolving and mutating for hundreds of years. This phenomenon was born and grew in secrecy among black slaves. It became part of an unofficial means of survival and preservation of cultural identity, in the face of overwhelming obstacles to both. But this story is not a conventional art history narrative. The visual arts, which arose from a most unlikely source, African slaves, have constantly faced being suppressed and removed from history without ever being given a fair opportunity for critical evaluation.