For the First Time, See Historically Excluded Black Folk Artists at the Met

‘History Refused to Die’ shows off the masterful works made by self-taught artists from the American South

history refused to die
Thornton Dial, “History Refused to Die” (2004) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection, 2014

WNYC’s art critic Deborah Solomon predicts that many of the artists featured in a recently opened show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art will soon become household names.

It’s a high bar, but one that History Refused to Die excites. The exhibition highlights 30 works by self-taught black artists from the American South. This is the first time the Met has exhibited works by these historically excluded artists. By presenting their sculptures, paintings, quilts and other artistic works alongside the Met’s 20th-century collection, the artists—considered Outsider artists for their nontraditional approaches or mediums—are finally being given the recognition they deserve.

The show, originated by former Met curator Marla Prather and organized by Randall R. Griffey, curator in the department of modern and contemporary art, and Amelia Peck, curator of American Decorative Arts, comes from a selection of works donated to the museum by the Atlanta-based Souls Grown Deep Foundation.

The organization has collected an estimated 1,100 works by more than 160 self-taught African-American artists, two-thirds of whom are women, since 2010. Starting in 2014, the foundation began presenting these works to institutions and museums throughout the world.

The Met spent almost two years considering which pieces to select for the exhibition, according to The New York Times’ Roberta Smith. Much of the work on view was built from found or scavenged materials, like cans or clothing.

Take Thornton Dial’s 2004 piece “History Refused to Die,” from which the exhibition takes its name. The sculpture measures 9 feet tall and was built from okra stalks, clothes and chains. The American artist and metalworker, who died two years ago, is perhaps the best-known artist in the show, and nine of his pieces are showcased.

Ten intricate, hand-sewn patchwork quilts created in Alabama’s remote black community of Gee’s Bend are also on view. According to the Souls Grown Deep website, the approximately 700-strong community has been producing masterpieces since the mid-19th century; the oldest surviving textile goes back to the 1920s. “Enlivened by a visual imagination that extends the expressive boundaries of the quilt genre, these astounding creations constitute a crucial chapter in the history of African American art,” the organization writes.

Souls Grown Deep, which was founded by art historian and collector William Arnett, traces the history of many of these Outsider artist creations back to the collapse of agricultural economy in the aftermath of the Civil War, when African-Americans were forced to migrate out of rural areas to bigger cities in search of work. One of these places was Birmingham, Alabama, where there were iron and steel industry jobs and where black art started to take shape through quilting and funerary.

Black folk artists had reasons aside from stylistic ones to use scavenged material: Many of them were poor, so they worked with what they had.

The tradition of using everyday objects in artwork is known as assemblage. The Tate Museum traces its history back to Europe the early 1900s when Pablo Picasso started making 3-D works with found objects. However, as Solomon points out, some of the best-known mid 20th-century assemblage artists, like the artist Robert Rauschenberg—born Milton Rauschenberg in Port Arthur, Texas—may have pulled their inspiration from work by these black folk artists.

In her review about History Refused to Die she muses that there’s a compelling case that assemblage “may have originated in the vernacular culture of the South.”

“If [the Met] had included works from the ‘40s and ‘50s and put everything in context, then we could show how the assemblage tradition, which was part of black vernacular culture, influenced artists,” Solomon writes.

The works on view are more recent, many dating from the 1980s and '90s. As Solomon says, that just calls attention to the need for another show to specifically grapple with how these artists influenced the discipline.

"History Refused to Die" will run at the Met through September 23

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