History Refused to Die, Highlights from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation Gift at the Met

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“What if your baby is cold?”

My Soul Has Grown Deep, Black Art from the American South, (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Yale University Press, 2018) with essays by Cheryl Finley, Randall R. Griffey, Amelia Peck and Darryl Pinckney, was published to accompany History Refused to Die. Daryl Pinckney’s essay ends with the thought: “But the history still tells us that the sheer existence of this art was not predicted, and maybe that is the most important thing history can tell us about it.”

Louisiana Bendolph stood quietly just outside the eighty-first street entrance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on a Saturday morning waiting for the Museum to open. She was there to conduct a Studio Workshop entitled, “Design and Construction: A Quilting Workshop.”

History Refused to Die, Highlights from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation Gift* was an exhibition on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through September 23, 2018 that included paintings, sculptures, drawings and quilts by self-taught contemporary African American artists from the American South. The quilts in the exhibition were created by members of the Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective in Alabama.

The artists in the exhibition were, and many still are, working in the rural South in small economically challenged communities and hamlets. Their art isn’t influenced by trends, or travels to galleries in Europe or New York. These sculptures are constructed in backyards, behind cabins and mostly hidden from view. The tires, scraps of carpet, rocks, metal and other materials used in the constructions are all found objects. The quilts were made for warmth and comfort.

The Gee Bend quilts are stitched from worn fabric and designed without the repeating patterns found in more traditional and what might be considered precious quilts. Gee Bend quilts are made from faded indigo denim, colorful pieces of corduroy remaining from a commercial project for Sears, Roebuck and Company or the clothes of a deceased family member. The designs are improvisations and bring to mind the riff coming from a trumpet in a small jazz club. If there is a narrative it is intentionally not pictorial.

In Louisiana’s words, “I don’t do things straight. … there is respect for worn things.” In one of the curator’s descriptions of a quilt it is suggested that one of the squares represents the main house and the others the smaller cabins of the workers on what might have been a plantation. A subtle thought that would be apparent to only a few people.

In the rural south quilts were made to be used. Often the lining might be a quilt that is worn out. Women, who made a living by picking cotton, would stay at home when it rained and if they weren’t at school they might be quilting.

As the workshop was ending, Louisiana walked around the studio to view the work. Studying one piece with her quiet eyes she asked, in a gentle voice, “What’s next?” The student wasn’t sure and told her she was out of fabric that seemed to work with the direction the quilt was taking.

“What if your child was cold and you didn’t have any money. Then how would you finish the quilt?” She took a few pieces of fabric piled on the floor and framed it around what the unfinished piece.

Thinking of the many refugees struggling across the world, and the individuals who are homeless, her words hung in the air. “What if your baby was cold and you didn’t have any money. Then what would you do?”

Souls Grown Deep Foundation is dedicated to documenting, preserving, and promoting the contributions of artists from the African American South, and the cultural traditions in which they are rooted. The mission is advanced by advocating for the contributions of these artists in the canon of American art history, accomplished through collection transfers, scholarship, exhibitions, education, public programs, and publications.

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