TOLEDO, Ohio – Twenty-four exemplary works acquired over the last two years from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, one of the most important organizations supporting the work of African American artists from the southern United States, will debut in January at the Toledo Museum of Art. Living Legacies: Art of the African American South features works of art in a range of media by some of the most significant artists of their generation.
Artists included in the exhibition are Leroy Almon, Thornton Dial, Thornton Dial, Jr., Richard Dial, Lonnie Holley, Ronald Lockett, Joe Minter, John B. Murray, Royal Robertson, Georgia Speller, Henry Speller, Luster Willis and several generations of women quiltmakers, including Louisiana Bendolph, Mary Elizabeth Kennedy, Jessie T. Pettway, Lola Pettway, Lucy T. Pettway, Martha Pettway, Rita Mae Pettway and Florine Smith, as well as Estelle Witherspoon, one of the founders of the Freedom Quilting Bee. Living Legacies will recognize both their crucial contributions to a broader understanding of 20th-century American art and their artistic influences upon subsequent generations of artists.
Curated by Jessica S. Hong, TMA’s curator of modern and contemporary art, Living Legacies: Art of the African American South will be on view in the museum’s New Media Gallery from Jan. 15 through May 1, 2022.
“Living Legacies celebrates the multiplicity, power, and complexity of these artists’ practices that represent a crucial part of the American experience and art historical record,” said Hong. “The exhibition is intended to illuminate these visionaries’ multifaceted creative achievements and enduring legacies.”
In 2014 the Souls Grown Deep Foundation began an ongoing program to transfer works to the permanent collections of leading American and international art museums. Living Legacies supports TMA’s strategic initiative to broaden and make more accessible its collection, exhibitions and outreach programs and to acquire and present works by artists whose cultural perspectives and traditions have historically been underrepresented in museums. With roots in cultural expressions of the African diaspora and enslaved peoples in the Americas, many of the artists in Living Legacies expound upon visual traditions based on the creative reinvention of everyday objects, which were initially developed out of necessity and subsequently forged into distinct and varied artistic practices.
Living Legacies will offer a mix of media, techniques, and approaches, with works organized by family, aesthetic and visual affiliation, as well as along social, spiritual, and political themes.
A range of vibrant and patterned quilts by Louisiana Bendolph, Mary Elizabeth Kennedy, Lucy T. Pettway, and other artists from Alabama, including Boykin, Alabama (also known as Gee’s Bend), frequently embody religious references or significant designs and mark-making expanding the histories and legacies of quiltmaking in America.
Several artists emphasize the primacy of the domestic sphere, from learning or bestowing familial cultural traditions to reflecting on the influence of family structures, as with Richard Dial’s engaging mixed-media sculpture The Comfort of the First Born (1988).
Many in the exhibition were active during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s and express their journey having to contend with injustice and discrimination through their artistic and cultural production. Lonnie Holley's work transforms discarded materials into powerful, often biting critiques of societal wrongs, from racial injustice and child neglect to environmental destruction. He often uses materials like old car parts and truck gears, electrical cords, and recycled pieces of communication technology. In Cutting Up Old Film (Don't Edit the Wrong Thing Out) (1984) Holley comments on the construction of history, calling into question whose voices and perspectives become part of or are “cut out” of the official record. Other highlights include the metal assemblages by Ronald Lockett (Verge of Extinction, 1994) and Joe Minter (How Do I Look?, 1997).
Leroy Almon’s aspirational mixed media work The New Heaven (1984) features a godlike figurehead overseeing a diverse group of worshippers in the promised land. The exhibition culminates with Thornton Dial’s large-scale sculpture Trip to the Mountaintop (2004), which borrows words from a prophetic and rousing speech made by Martin Luther King Jr. the day before he was assassinated in 1968.
The exhibition will also include a reading area with resources and materials related to the artists, works, and themes explored throughout the exhibition, providing further context and an opportunity for visitors to respond and reflect.
Living Legacies: Art of the African American South is funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities Sustaining the Humanities through the American Rescue Plan (#SHARP), the NEH’s $87.8 million grant program to help nearly 300 cultural and educational institutions recover from the economic impact of the pandemic. The exhibition is also supported by presenting sponsors Susan and Tom Palmer and season sponsor ProMedica, with additional support from the Ohio Arts Council and TMA Ambassadors.
Souls Grown Deep advocates the inclusion of Black artists from the South in the canon of American art history and fosters economic empowerment, racial and social justice, and educational advancement in the communities that gave rise to these artists. Souls Grown Deep derives its name from a 1921 poem by Langston Hughes (1902-67) titled The Negro Speaks of Rivers, the last line of which is "My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”
Souls Grown Deep Foundation stewards the largest and foremost collection of works by Black artists from the Southern United States, encompassing some 1,000 works by more than 160 artists, two-thirds of whom are women. The Foundation advances its mission through collection transfers, exhibitions, education, public programs, and publications.