Living Legacies: a historic exhibition on African-American art

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TOLEDO, Ohio – Twenty-four exemplary works acquired over the past two years from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, one of the largest organizations supporting the work of African-American artists in the southern United States, will debut in January at the Toledo Museum of Art. Living Legacy: South African American Art presents works of art in a range of media by some of the most important artists of their generation.

The 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 quilters, 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 Freedom Quilting Bee. Living heritage recognize both their crucial contributions to a broader understanding of 20th century American art and their artistic influences on subsequent generations of artists.

Organized by Jessica S. Hong, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at TMA, Living Legacy: South African American Art will be on view in the museum’s new media gallery from January 15 to May 1, 2022.

Living heritage celebrates the multiplicity, power and complexity of the practices of those artists who represent a crucial part of the American experience and art history, ”said Hong. “The exhibition is intended to highlight the multifaceted creative achievements and enduring legacy of these visionaries.

In 2014, the Souls Grown Deep Foundation launched an ongoing program to transfer works to the permanent collections of major American and international art museums. Living heritage supports the strategic initiative of the TMA to expand and make more accessible its collection, exhibitions and outreach programs and to acquire and present works by artists whose cultural perspectives and traditions have always been under- represented in museums. Rooted in the cultural expressions of the African diaspora and the enslaved peoples of the Americas, many artists from Living heritage exhibit 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 bequests will be offer a mix of media, techniques and approaches, with works organized by family affiliation, aesthetic and visual, as well as social, spiritual and political themes.

A range of vibrant and patterned quilts from Louisiana Bendolph, Mary Elizabeth Kennedy, Lucy T. Pettway and other Alabama artists including Boykin, Alabama (also known as Gee’s Bend) frequently embody religious references or significant designs and brands expanding the history and heritage of quilting in America.

Several artists emphasize the primacy of the domestic sphere, from learning or granting family cultural traditions to reflecting on the influence of family structures, as with Richard Dial’s engaging multimedia sculpture. The comfort of the first born (1988).

Many in the exhibit were active during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and express their journey in the face of injustice and discrimination through their artistic and cultural production. Lonnie Holley’s work turns discarded materials into powerful and often biting critiques of societal wrongs, racial injustice and child neglect to environmental destruction. It often uses materials such as old car parts and truck gears, electrical cords, and recycled communications technology. In Cut out an old movie (don’t edit the wrong thing) (1984) Holley comments on the construction of the story, questioning the voices and perspectives that are part of or are “cut off” from the official record. Other highlights include Ronald Lockett’s metal assemblies (On the brink of extinction, 1994) and Joe Minter (What do I look like?, 1997).

Leroy Almon’s ambitious mixed media work The new sky (1984) features a divine figurehead overseeing a diverse group of worshipers in the Promised Land. The exhibition culminates with the large-scale sculpture by Thornton Dial Trip to the top of the mountain (2004), which borrows words from a prophetic and rousing speech given by Martin Luther King Jr. on the eve of his assassination in 1968.

The exhibition will also include a reading space with resources and material related to the artists, works and themes explored throughout the exhibition, providing additional context and an opportunity for visitors to react and reflect.

Living Legacy: South African American Art is funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities Sustaining the Humanities through the American Rescue Plan (#SHARP), NEH’s $ 87.8 million grant program to help nearly 300 cultural and educational institutions recover from the economic impact of the pandemic. The exhibit is also supported by Presentation Sponsors Susan and Tom Palmer and Season Sponsor ProMedica, with additional support from the Ohio Arts Council and TMA Ambassadors.

Souls Grown Deep advocates for the inclusion of Southern black artists into the canon of American art history and promotes economic empowerment, racial and social justice, and educational advancement in the communities that gave birth to these artists. . Souls Grown Deep takes 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 as deep as rivers”.

Souls Grown Deep Foundation manages the largest and largest collection of work by black artists in the southern United States, comprising some 1,000 works by more than 160 artists, two-thirds of whom are women. The Foundation advances its mission through transfers of collections, exhibitions, education, public programs and publications.


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