‘Souls Grown Deep’ puts African American art on display

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The Philadelphia Museum of Art is showcasing a new collection of works by African American artists from the South.

The exhibition, titled Souls Grown Deep, is an extraordinary look at unique artworks from African-American artists from Alabama and Tennessee.

“Their work has been historically underrepresented in museums all across the country,” says John Vick, Curator for the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The collection features mixed media by artists from the 20th and 21st century.

“There are works that are more sculptural assemblages, paintings that are made up of diverse mixed media,” says Vick.

Thornton Dial was a pioneering African-American artist from Alabama who rose to prominence in the late 1980s with a piece titled The Last Days of Martin Luther King.

“In it there’s this image of a tiger that’s made up of all different textiles,” Vick says. “The tiger for Thornton Dial is a figure that sometimes was used to represent himself, to represent African American men more generally. And in this situation it represents the reverend Martin Luther King.”

Lonnie Holly is still a working artist, and his piece, Protecting Myself the Best I Can, Weapons by the Door. “. He’s a visual artist as well as a musician and a poet,” Vick says, “It’s a small piece that is a terracotta pipe with baseball bat, and a metal pipe, and a golf club in it.”

Interspersed with the sculptures, there are quilts — dating back to the 1800s.

“The quilts are made of fabrics of all different kinds. You have cotton, you have flannel, you have polyester, corduroy,” Vick says, “It’s a tradition and a craft and an art that’s passed down from mothers to daughters and aunts to nieces.”

“I started quilting when I was six or five years old and I was the seventh child and I thank the lord that I make quilts the best I can”, says Mary Lee Bendolph, quilter.

Her daughter-in-law Louisana Bendolph says “I was around 12 and that was expected of us to learn how to make quilts and piece quilts.”
Some of the quilters are from Gee’s Bend, Alabama, famous for its quilting culture.

For Louisiana Bendolph, quilting goes back nearly six generations.

“It was cold back then, the houses wasn’t made that well and we needed something to keep warm,” says Bendolph.

The quilters traditionally repurposed old clothing. You’ll see sports jerseys and denim jeans.

“Back then you used what you had. If you were lucky enough to find a piece of fabric then that’s what you use,” says Bendolph.

The works were originally acquired by the Souls Grown Deep Foundation in Atlanta, Georgia — they are now part of the museum’s permanent collection.

“There’s a lot of interest in these artists,” Vick says. “This is an opportunity to see these new works for the first time.”

For tickets, visit theartsinphilly.org

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