Souls Grown Deep: African-American Vernacular Art of the South, a groundbreaking exhibition of over 450 artworks by some 30 contemporary artists, highlighting a significant artistic tradition that has risen in concert with the Civil Rights Movement. The exhibit will introduce visitors to the achievements of individuals who have given artistic form to their changing identity. This showing will emphasize Southern artists' growing awareness of their changing role from being conveyors of localized traditions to becoming concerned with national issues. Some of the most powerful African-American vernacular art has been created in areas where the greatest inequities have occurred, namely those sections of the South where deep-rooted traditions have come into collision with industrialization, mass-media, racial integration, and increased social and demographic mobility.
This exhibition presents an art form that is universal in its appeal and currency yet highly individuated in its origins within the African-American South. Involving both a celebration of gains in Civil Rights as well as a critique of the values of post-World War II consumer culture, this art combines naïveté and sophistication in remarkable new ways that have collapsed fine and folk art in designations, resulting in a new category that is neither wholly marginalized nor completely mainstream. This art is unique in its way of synthesizing three enduring legacies—African, European, and Native American—that are particularly strong in the South.
Writing in Newsweek, critic Malcolm Jones, Jr. reviewed the cultural events presented in conjunction with the Atlanta Olympic Games:
“The show that ought to be showcased in the High Museum, the show that best exemplifies the South’s unique contribution to art, has been relegated to a lesser space in City Hall East, a venue that’s harder to find but worth the trouble. ‘Souls Grown Deep,’ an enormous collection of vernacular art —what used to be called primitive art —by Southern African-Americans is the show to see in Atlanta. Enter through a front yard re-created right down to the dirt floor, but a yard transformed, with broken tombstones, sprinkler heads, bedsprings, paintings, baby-doll parts—and all of it rejiggered by artist Lonnie Holley into a phantasmagorical vision as surreptitiously coherent as a dream. The rest of the show is not quite so overwhelming, but every piece is a wonder. Roots painted to look like faces, driftwood, burned televisions, roller skates, porch furniture cut apart and refashioned into strange abstract sculpture, or iconic people and animals cut from bits of sheet metal. Making art out of ordinary stuff—trash, really, the flotsam of daily life that we all see but don’t see—these artists offer a rebuke to our lack of imagination. But it’s done with such finesse and the results are so surprisingly beautiful that we forget to complain. Robert Rauschenberg recently said that seeing ‘yard art’ like this when he was growing up in Port Arthur, Texas, helped inspire his assemblages of the ’50s and ’60s, and that statement underscores not only the uniqueness of this work but also its sense of visual sophistication.”
The exhibition is a collaboration among The Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) Cultural Olympiad, the Carlos Museum and the City of Atlanta Bureau of Cultural Affairs.