Artwork: Thornton Dial | Image: Stephen Pitkin


Jason Allen 12/01/23

Souls Grown Deep like the Rivers

Souls Grown Deep like the Rivers | A New & Spectacular Showcase of Unique Artwork by Black Artists from the American South 

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers…
– Langston Hughes, 1921

That’s just an expert, but that poem written by a 19 year old Langston Hughes inspired the creation of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, based in Atlanta. There, they’ve amassed the world’s largest collection of works by Black southern artists – and this spring, they’re going to lend some of its finest pieces to the Royal Academy.

The idea is for the exhibition to showcase the unique artistic traditions & storytelling methods of African American artists from the southern United States. And being an African American in the southern United States has never, ever been easy. These works often reflect the South’s frequently harrowing history, from slavery through to segregation, the Jim Crow era, the Civil Rights Movement, and the painful echoes that still stubbornly resonate today.

Souls Deep like the Rivers: Mary T. Smith three women from the garden club
Mary T. Smith, Three Women from The Garden Club

The whole show will feature around 64 pieces by 34 artists, in various media including sculpture, painting, drawings and assemblages – and the majority of them will be being shown for the first time in Europe. Many of the artists were entirely self-taught, and use found objects & scrap to forge their works, including the likes of Thornton Dial (1925-2016), Lonnie Holley (b. 1950), Joe Minter (b. 1943). And not only did they not have access to arts education or materials, but they frequently had to exhibit them on their own property too, in a tradition called the “Yard Show.” Whether the Royal Academy is a step up or down for them is debatable, but it’s certainly a change of scene.

Another highlight of the show will be the works by the Gee’s Bend Quiltmakers – they’re a community of women artists from Gee’s Bend, Alabama, and the quilts they’ve been making for almost the last century are a striking example of intergenerational art-making knowledge, having emerged entirely in a tiny & isolated community. Most residents are descendants of enslaved people from the Pettway plantation, and most of them still bear the names of their ancestors’ enslavers – but the vivid, multi-layered textile works they created are now recognised as an important chapter in American modern art.

Quilts of Gee's Bend

All told, despite the very local nature of their craft, the work often deals with universal & globally relevant topics such as economic inequality, oppression and social marginalization, as well as more personal themes like sexuality, current events, the impact of place and nature, and the connection to one’s ancestry and history.

…I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.


NOTE: Souls Grown Deep like the Rivers: Black Artists from the American South is set to show at the RA between 17 March — 18 June 2023. Tickets are available now for £15 (£13 without donation) and you can get them right here.

Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BD

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Souls Grown Deep like the Rivers

Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, Piccadilly Circus , W1J 0BD