The Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 22 will open the exhibition History Refused to Die: Highlights from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation Gift. This show includes 30 paintings, sculptures, drawings, and quilts by self-taught contemporary African American artists to celebrate the 2014 gift to The Met of works of art from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation. The artists represented by this generous donation all hail from the American South, primarily Alabama and Florida.
History Refused to Die will feature the mixed-media art of Thornton Dial (1928–2016), whose monumental assemblage from 2004 provides the exhibition’s title, and a selection of renowned quilts from Gee’s Bend, Alabama, by quilters such as Annie Mae Young (1928–2012), Lucy Mingo (born 1931), Loretta Pettway (born 1942), and additional members of the extended Pettway family. Among other accomplished artists featured are Nellie Mae Rowe (1900–1982), Lonnie Holley (born 1950), and Ronald Lockett (1965–1988).
Remarkably diverse in media and technique, the works on view nonetheless suggest a cultural and aesthetic kinship among the makers through their use of found and repurposed materials. The works’ subjects are likewise varied, rooted in personal history and experience as well as regional identity—such as legacies of slavery and post-Reconstruction histories of oppression under the Black Codes and Jim Crow laws—and national and international events.
Over time, self-taught artists have been labeled “outsider” for their use of everyday or discarded materials to create works for themselves and their communities without the expectation that their creations would be seen in galleries or museums. Presented in the context of The Met collection on Fifth Avenue, this exhibition aspires to challenge this description and to encourage a more expansive understanding of the legacy of these artists within the broader canon of modern and contemporary American art.
History Refused to Die: Highlights from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation Gift is organized by Randall Griffey, Curator in the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, and Amelia Peck, Marica F. Vilcek Curator of American Decorative Arts and manager of The Henry R. Luce Center for the Study of American Art at The Met. The exhibition was originated by Marla Prather, former curator in the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art at The Met.
The exhibition will be accompanied by the catalogue My Soul Has Grown Deep: Black Art from the Rural South. In this fully illustrated publication, Griffey situates Dial, Holley, and others within the historical institutional embrace of self-taught artists, including Henri Rousseau and Jean Dubuffet, and the modernist practice of repurposing found and salvaged materials. In her catalogue contribution, Peck discusses the origins of the striking graphic aesthetic of the quilts. Their essays are bookended by a thorough introduction by Cheryl Finley, Associate Professor of Art History at Cornell University, and a critical historical overview of the American South during and after the Civil Rights Era by novelist and critic Darryl Pinckney. The catalogue will be published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and distributed by Yale University Press.