A line strung with dead birds runs across an overcast sky of blue-grey enamel. The image appears familiar: crows used as scarecrows, the dead displayed to warn off the living. But these birds turn out to be scraps of black cloth suspended from real wire against the canvas, each with curiously human overtones. A glove, a hat, the actual traces of people – beyond the allusions to Jim Crow laws and southern lynchings the tragic poetry is irreducible. These flightless birds have neither life nor freedom.
Thornton Dial was 80 when he made this masterpiece in 2008. Born on a former cotton plantation in Alabama, he left school at 10 to support his family, working for decades in a railroad car plant. His struggle to find time, money or materials outside the established systems and institutions is emblematic of all 34 Black artists from the American south in this show. Theirs is a hardwon art of direct speech and passionate vision, of love, witness and historic record conjured out of wood, tin and cloth, car paint and clay, even the dirt of the earth.
Thornton Dial’s Mrs Bendolph is the size and shape of a bed, flat to the wall, all crisscrossing cloth strips and wooden struts. It looks like a Robert Rauschenberg assemblage except that Dial had no knowledge of such artists (unlike Rauschenberg, who said the influence of southern “junkyard” art ran the other way). Carpet, textile, a dressing gown, furze from the fields, it commemorates one of the great Gee’s Bend quilters of rural Alabama, whose brilliant free-form quilts so often invoke that landscape.
Straight away you are out in those fields, looking down from above as a slave flees from her predator in one of Dial’s whorled drawings, and again through one of Mrs Bendolph’s spectacularly labyrinthine quilts, displayed on the opposite wall.
Dial’s nephew Ronald Lockett constructs a floral tribute to his great-grandmother’s back yard out of tin cans and car paint that exactly resembles the patches on the quilts she used to make. His rusted metal grille, concealing a sinister white mass, is a memorial to the 1995 Oklahoma bombing. You are in very deep, very fast, to community, landscape and penury.
Much of this art comes directly from the land itself. Ralph Griffin brings forth a magnificent eagle out of found wood, its wings a clattering array of sticks. Jesse Aaron’s frightening totem pole of a trunk looks back at you with plastic eyes.
Bessie Harvey, who carved dolls out of roots as a child in Georgia, sees a vision of black faces as they might look to white oppressors in a single tree root torn straight out of the ground.
The material is the message, along with the making. Joe Minter, whose colossal African Village in America is on permanent display in the half-acre yard of his home in Birmingham, Alabama, worked for years in construction and welding. One of his independent sculptures, at the Royal Academy, is a crucifixion in which the suffering figures of Christ and the two thieves on Calvary are invoked as industrial steel brackets, garage nails driven straight through them to welded iron crosses. Rust blossoms like blood. The past is riveted to the present.
One of the starkest works here is a large and very careful painting of a blue purse on an orange background, signed in pencil Nellie Mae Rowe. Rowe was a domestic servant in Georgia who taught herself to draw and decorated her yard with images, which were eventually shown in Black Folk Art 1930-80 in Washington in 1976. The purse was made a few years later, after Rowe was diagnosed with terminal cancer at the age of 81. It is a celebration of a vital object, apparently empty but treasured: simple as the image itself.
Sometimes the narrative feels too private, or opaque. Whose heads are these, fashioned in clay with real locks of hair? A very vivid painting called My Main Man Dan stands right out, with its Roy Lichtenstein licks, but who is this Dan? Why does Mose Tolliver portray himself as a huge red bull’s head?
Musician and artist Lonnie Holley’s Copying the Rock, from 1995, positions a chunk of rock on a defunct photocopier with words scrawled inside its lid: “It’s Like I am Living in Hell”, but presented entirely out of context like this, it is not obvious who’s speaking to whom. The sense of community is everywhere tight, but sometimes too much so.
There is abstract painting on old television screens, on corrugated tin and buckled plywood. A vision of Africa, made in Alabama in the 60s, was painted in blackberry juice and grass stain on old board. The sense of its making, so arduous, so loving, effortfully made with the fingertips, comes before (and indeed after) anything in the image itself.
And a point may come – it did for me, looking up at a sculpture made of rusted bean cans and baking trays – when the dissonance just gets too much, between the places where these works were made (and who made them) and the expensive white walls of the Royal Academy.
This is the whole point of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation behind the exhibition, of course. Founded by the late Atlanta collector and curator William Arnett to preserve and document African American art from the deep south, and now with a board of directors featuring Jane Fonda and the art star Amy Sherald, SGDF has produced numerous museums shows all over America. Works have even been shown in the White House.
But what we see here is a fraction of the collection – 64 works out of several thousand – crammed, moreover, in three small rooms at the back of the Royal Academy on antiseptic white plinths, with careful spotlighting, as if it were just another tranche of costly blue-chip art.
Still, it is a most welcome and essential introduction for British viewers to an art that is by turns jubilant, defiant, poignant, barbed, urgent, wild, elegiac, awkward, profound. And which, if it has any single defining characteristic, has no sense of banal formal constraints. Carvings become installations, sculptures become paintings that burst into three dimensions – like Dial’s self-portrait as an eagle trying to get out of a ridiculous suit, the stars of the spangled banner exploding in painted tin all around him: a bird lifting off into flight.
Souls Grown Deep Like the Rivers is at the Royal Academy, London, until 18 June