We Will Walk
— Art and Resistance in the American South
by Eddie Bruce Jones with Kelly Foster and Fleur Sumpter
As an artist and a thinker we encountered and present these bodies of work created by African-American artists in the American South. Through time spent with the artists we appreciated the cultural and aesthetic clarity of these works and the wealth of achievement of the artists and makers. They demonstrate a powerful care for the world we live in. The work in the exhibition reminds us of the power of art in an age of street protest. We would like to thank Turner Contemporary who have worked tirelessly to make this exhibition possible.
Hannah Collins and Paul Goodwin
We Will Walk – Art and Resistance in the American South
Turner Contemporary, Margate
Slavery and segregation shaped the rural and industrial economies of the South and created a regime of racial terror. Much of the art in We Will Walk was made within this context. Produced in outdoor yards, the work takes many forms, from ephemeral environments made from salvaged materials to sculptural assemblages, paintings, musical instruments and quilts.
In the segregated South creators drew on black Southern cosmology, musical improvisation, American history, African traditions and more recently, popular culture, as material for their work. Blues and Spiritual music were exported from the South to the rest of the United States and beyond. The art in We Will Walk can be seen as a visual equivalent to this musical improvisation but has been overlooked until relatively recently.
Walking as an act of courage and protest came to the fore during the Civil Rights period (1954–1968) as the title of this exhibition reflects. Activists like writer James Baldwin and photographer Doris Derby went to the South to bear witness and demand change. Vast communal acts like the historic marches from Selma to Montgomery (1965) started a process of transformation that gradually allowed hidden artistic practices to become visible.
This exhibition highlights the innovative visual languages created by these artists, their relationship to history, the environment, and their influence on American culture. In a new era of protest and resistance, We Will Walk presents the extraordinary creativity of these artists working outside of the mainstream for the first time in the UK.
Blues and the Abstract Truth (1961) is a classic album by Oliver Nelson, a jazz composer and saxophonist from St Louis, Missouri. Much American culture comes from the South and finds its origins in racial slavery. An abstract version of this painful truth found expression through blues music and the culture of improvisation in jazz.
The works here are arguably an equivalent of jazz in visual art. They share a language of improvisation and abstraction. In Purvis Young’s paintings about migration from Africa and within the United States the figure is condensed to a series of gestures. William Edmondson’s stone-carved objects depict homes, animals and people reduced to their most minimal form. An abstract quilt by Annie Mae Young made from worn out blue jeans compresses the traces of their use onto one at surface.
Some artists take on the weight and work of depicting American and global history. Changing My Walk (Honoring Andrew Young) by Lonnie Holley simultaneously refers to marching whilst referencing international human rights activist Andrew Young’s pivotal role as an African-American leader.
The use of tree roots in Southern Black rural art can be traced back to African traditions where the root carries spiritual significance. Bessie Harvey created figures whose identities came directly from the tree. Ralph Griffin’s Eagle speaks of ecology, survival and resistance in 20th Century America.
For these artists, the Southern yard is a space for gathering, making and remembrance. It is a site of creativity and resistance. It is both a domestic place and part of the landscape.
Many Black rural Southerners lived on or near former plantations as sharecroppers in the Jim Crow (1877–1950s) era of racial segregation that followed slavery. They remained heavily financially indebted to their former owners. The yard emerged as a crucial sanctuary and expressive space. Through ‘yard shows’ yard art creators developed new languages and forms involving specific uses of materials.
Within the yard there is an art of remembrance including traditions of Nkisi: objects that embody spirits. This goes back to Kongo, now part of modern-day Angola. There are also common objects, images and symbols in many of the yards including painted tyres, used shoes, roots, and chairs.
Mary T. Smith delineated her yard space with wooden structures in black and white populating them with painted figures and texts. She styled her own appearance to match her yard. Emmer Sewell constructed layered assemblages of detritus with coded signs and symbols. In communal yard spaces musicians were able to gather and improvise. They shared a language of improvisation with others like the Gee’s Bend quilters. The yard can be seen as a form of visual poetry.
James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas, a Mississippi blues musician and gravedigger, sculpted small busts of historical figures and friends often including human teeth. Joe Minter’s African Village in America in Birmingham, Alabama, is a universe within a yard. A US army veteran, Minter documents the African-American experience within his own community. His sculptures made from welded iron and other salvaged materials tell stories of spirituality, resistance, tragedy and fortitude.
The murder of the fourteen year old African-American boy Emmett Till in 1955 galvanised protest and inspired a number of important Civil Rights songs. Musicologist Professor Calvin Forbes has curated a playlist for this exhibition. Strange Fruit by Billie Holliday begins the selection. The song is a classic rendition evoking the melancholy, loss and haunting beauty of the Southern landscapes scarred by memories of racial terror. The titles in and of themselves send powerful messages about the world the Civil Rights movement tried to change: Mississippi Goddam (Nina Simone) 1964, The Times They Are a-Changin’ (Bob Dylan) 1964, I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free (Nina Simone) 1967, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (Gil Scott-Heron) 1970, Fight the Power (Public Enemy) 1988.
1. Billie Holiday - Strange Fruit
2. Nina Simone - Mississippi Goddam
3. Lightning Hopkins - Tom Moore Blues
4. Nina Simone - I Wish I knew How It Would Feel to Be Free
5. Gil Scott-Heron - The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
6. John Coltrane - Alabama
7. Sweet Honey in The Rock - No More Auction Block
8. Joan Baez - We Shall Overcome
9. The Staple Singers - Respect Yourself
10. Freedom Singers - This Little Light of Mine
11. Public Enemy - Fight the Power
12. Duke Ellington - Come Sunday
13. Bob Dylan - The Times They Are A Changing
14. Les McCann & Eddie Harris - Compared to What
15. Vera Hall - Trouble So Hard
Click to play the full playlist in Spotify
Frequently, we hear about the very obvious political aspects of the Movement, such as marches, voter registration initiatives, voting and protests, but there were many other aspects-- personal attributes-- that accompanied being active that helped one accomplish grassroots initiatives, for instance, listening, being down to earth, truthful, committed, strong. Of additional importance is gathering support by local leaders and assisting them, learning the environment, sharing knowledge, developing new information, new educational links, such as Head Start and freedom schools, and getting buy in from the community. Men, women and children were a very important part of that grass roots movement socially, culturally, politically and educationally.
Doris Derby interview with Shirley Read, 2019
Walking as protest shifted consciousness and was a turning point in the Civil Rights movement, galvanising national and international public support. Photographers documented this process of bringing about change. The organisers of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches are pictured together in a group portrait by Steve Schapiro before the event. Danny Lyon photographed Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. as he prepared to speak at the funeral for four young girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963.
Many of the artists in this exhibition were part of the Civil Rights movement in Alabama as participants or witnesses. To use W.E.B. Du Bois’ phrase in The Souls of Black Folk, civic action, protest and marches lifted the veil on submerged aspects of Southern life including artistic practices. Some artists, like Thornton Dial, were directly inspired by Civil Rights imagery and themes. Others, like Emmer Sewell, felt emboldened to make and display work in their yards.
A pilgrimage of black and white citizens from across the United States travelled to the South to register voters, to march and to bear witness through photography. During this period, Danny Lyon photographed Doris Derby as a young activist. Derby went on to document the enormous efforts by Civil Rights workers to teach women skills like reading, writing and maths. Derby’s images show quilting collectives, farming co-operatives and rural health initiatives. Alongside Derby, a number of other African-American photographers such as Gordon Parks and Ernest Withers, made images which provided an African-American perspective on events.
The tradition of walking as protest in our present moment is shown in Sheila Pree Bright’s powerful images of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Baby Suggs takes on the slow-paced task of stitching together a quilt. She wants to stay home and think about colors “that don’t hurt anybody” after her time as an enslaved woman on a Kentucky plantation.
Kneeling in the keeping room where she usually went to talk-think it was clear why Baby Suggs was so starved for color. There wasn’t any except for two orange squares in a quilt that made the absence shout. The walls of the room were slate colored, the floor earth-brown, the wooden dresser the color of itself, curtains white, and the dominating feature, the quilt over an iron cot, was made up of scraps of blue, serge, black, brown, and gray wool—the full range of the dark and the muted that thrift and modesty allowed. In that sober field, two patches of orange looked wild — like life in the raw.
Toni Morrison, from ‘Beloved’, 1987
Gee’s Bend is a small community located on a former plantation in Alabama. It lies on a spit of land surrounded by the Alabama River. This deeply rural community has become world famous for their unique hand-made quilts created by women for their own use and gradually recognised and collected by outsiders.
Linked to their maker’s history of poverty and hard labour on the cotton plantation, the quilts are made from repurposed materials. They contain abstract visual languages that have developed in isolation over a hundred years. The ferry that linked Gee’s Bend to Camden, the nearest town, was removed in order to prevent residents from registering the right to vote and from voting during the 1960’s and was not re-instated for forty years.
The abstract compositions of these quilts contain historical echoes of African textiles combined with observations of the Southern landscape. Like blues music and yard art they are acts of improvisation. Made from used clothing such as blue jeans and football shirts, their materials follow the history of American clothing, as fabrics have developed and changed. It was relatively common for plantation owners to name their enslaved workers with their own names, which remain as a symbol of a terrible past. Many of the quilters are descendants of people enslaved on the Pettway Plantation, which is reflected in their names to this day.
If Sun Ra came out of Alabama what else they got down there? Born in Birmingham in 1914, Sun Ra brought science fiction and Egyptology to bebop and swing jazz in the 1950s–musically, visually, theatrically, and theoretically. Ra re-invented jazz in his own futuristic Pharaonic image with unimpeachable knowledge and reverence for music’s past masters...
We should have asked about Ra’s Alabama roots a long time ago, at least as far back as the 1960’s, when Sun Ra and Alabama’s Negroes were both bent on bringing humanistic (and alienist) change to a Jim Crow America not ready for prime time, let alone Afrocentric space time… what other kind of extra-terrestrial brothers were they cultivating down there…
From an essay by Greg Tate
A starting point for We Will Walk was Hannah Collins’ encounter with artist Noah Purifoy’s vast sculptural site
in Joshua Tree, California, which she documented in 2015. Purifoy’s work drew on traditions of yard art with which he would have been familiar. He was born in and spent his early years in Snow Hill, Alabama, around twenty miles from Gee’s Bend. His works make clear the enduring influence of this background on his art, which is filled with references to both segregation and the Afro-Atlantic traditions he grew up with. Purifoy left the South to become a leading exponent of assemblage art.
In this room we explore the connections and continuities between the work shown in the previous galleries and artists who were born in and then left the South. They continue to reference Southern history and culture in their art, both through subject matter and the expressive languages they use. Jazz musician Sun Ra was born and is buried in Birmingham, Alabama, although he spent many years in Chicago. A pioneering work of Afro-Futurism, Sun Ra’s Space is the Place imagines a utopian world for Black people away from white supremacy. In his Letter to Sun Ra Glenn Ligon writes: “I came from a dream that the Black man dreamed long ago,” you said. “Better to be from outer space than from here. Still is.”
Jack Whitten, also born in Birmingham, Alabama, went to New York as a young man to immerse himself in abstract expressionism. King’s Wish (Martin Luther’s Dream) is a semi- abstract painting titled by Whitten to reflect on the work of Dr. King. Whitten’s diaries speak to a lifelong preoccupation with Civil Rights.
The multiple narratives and languages within both music and visual cultures of the South are re-imagined and re-interpreted through succeeding generations of artists. Kara Walker’s drawings and watercolours carefully combine the Southern past with the present. Both Lonnie Holley and Kara Walker find new ways to engage with traumatic historical material.