‘Souls Grown Deep’ exhibition highlights VMFA acquisition of African-American works

Samantha Willis | 7/13/2018, 7:32 p.m. | Updated on 7/20/2018, 5:28 p.m.
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts invites Richmond area residents to view 34 pieces of work by black artists and ...
“Foundation of the World (A Dream of My Mother)” by Thornton Dial, 1994, welded steel rods, tin, rope, carpet, rope fiber, wood, burlap, enamel, spray paint and industrial sealing compound. Photo by Steve Pitkin/Pitkin Studio © Estate of Thornton Dial/Artist Rights Society Photo by Steve Pitkin/Pitkin Studio © Estate of Thornton Dial/Artist Rights Society Photo by Steve Pitkin/Pitkin Studio © Estate of Thornton Dial/Artist Rights Society

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is hosting an exhibition next year featuring 34 pieces of work by black artists the museum has purchased.

Valerie Cassel Oliver, the Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the museum since July 2017, was responsible for the purchase of the pieces from the Atlanta-based Souls Grown Deep Foundation, an organization that describes its mission as “documenting, preserving and promoting the contributions of artists from the African-American South, and the cultural traditions in which they are rooted.”

Ms. Oliver hopes the showing will expand the long-standing, exclusionary notions of what is — and what is not — modern art. 

“The decision was mine to collect these works, in part, because it compliments works in the collection as well as provides another dimension to the art-making practices of black artists,” said Ms. Oliver, who spent 16 years at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston before joining the VMFA.

“I also wanted to assert another origin for modernism beyond Europe — that of the American South as expressed in the work of black artists.”

Included in the special “Souls Grown Deep” exhibition are drawings, paintings and assemblage sculptures by Thornton Dial, Lonnie Holley, Ronald Lockett, Jimmy Lee Sudduth, Mose Toliver, Jesse Aaron, James “Son Ford” Thomas and Purvis Young.

Ms. Oliver said the museum already owned two pieces by the Alabama-born Mr. Dial before this acquisition. The recently added sculptures and paintings give the VMFA “a strong range of (his) works,” she said.  

Textile pieces enhance the exhibition, with quilts made by African-American women living in Gee’s Bend, Ala. 

“The women of Gee’s Bend are legendary,” Ms. Oliver said. “Their artistic creations show the depth of aesthetic traditions that reach back hundreds of years.”

The Gee’s Bend Quilts were woven by up to four generations of the Bendolph, Bennett and Pettway families, who all share ancestry of enslaved people at Pettway Plantation. To Ms. Oliver, the quilts are more than coverings. 

“My intention in having these works at the VMFA is that now we can expand the narrative of modernism into the American South, using these quilts as frameworks for that assertion,” Ms. Oliver said.

The special exhibition will run from June 8, 2019, through Nov. 17, 2019.

The Souls Grown Deep Foundation was founded in 2014, and includes in excess of 1,100 works by more than 160 African-American artists. A line in a 1921 Langston Hughes poem inspired the foundation’s name: “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”

The VMFA joins institutions like The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta in acquiring art through a gift-purchase program from the foundation’s vast collection.

Ms. Oliver was a member of the foundation’s board of trustees before coming to the VMFA, and continues her work with the group “to bring recognition for these artists of the American South as not simply an outsider or self-taught artists, but as iconic American treasures,” said Ms. Oliver.

In addition to her efforts behind the VMFA’s “Souls Grown Deep” acquisition, Ms. Oliver is preparing her debut exhibition at the museum. The showing, “What Remains to Be Seen,” spans the 50-year career of Howardena Pindell, an African-American artist and Philadelphia native.

Opening Aug. 25, it will be the first major survey of Ms. Pindell’s work, which includes drawings, paintings, photography, film and performance art.