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Inside the outsider art of African Americans

Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art, Edited by Paul Arnett and William Arnett, Tinwood Books, Volume I: 544 pp., $100; Volume II: 600 pp., $100

November 24, 2002|Darryl Pinckney | Darryl Pinckney is the author of "Out There: Mavericks of Black Literature" and "High Cotton."

What the father-and-son team of John and Alan Lomax -- white guys -- did for American music in the 1930s when the two went around the backwoods of the South recording black musicians and authentic blues, another father-and-son team of white guys, William and Paul Arnett, has done for contemporary American art, identifying and collecting since the 1970s vernacular art made by black artists in the South. Vernacular art is sometimes called folk or outsider art, because it is the work of people who have no formal training and, until 20 years or so ago, was not usually a part of gallery or museum culture. It was art made and exhibited in backyards, alleys, sheds and in modest homes, sometimes the houses themselves being objects of decoration. Its styles suggest that Zora Neale Hurston was not entirely wrong when she claimed that "the will to adorn" was an important feature of the visual culture of many black people in the U.S.

On her folklore-collecting expeditions of the 1930s, Hurston sent back to friends in New York descriptions of the art and artists -- sharecroppers, the formerly enslaved -- that she'd come across, but she hadn't the time or the means to follow up on her discoveries. They came and went, these creative souls, presumably known to their neighbors and sometimes to whites from the other side of town, as in the case of the elderly artist of tense two-dimensional figures, Bill Traylor, who became friends with and was encouraged by the young white artist Charles Shannon in Alabama in the late 1930s. The social milieu, the racially segregated South, in which vernacular artists lived and worked was much studied and photographed in the politically radical '30s, but visual art itself seldom came into the frame, so to speak.

Maybe this had something to do with the focus on the oral and the aural as black culture's real achievement, along with the assumption that poor artists should express themselves through socialist realism. Maybe it also had to do with the Works Progress Administration notion that folk art was educational, not commercial; the idea that folk art's themes could be religious, but not progressive; and the difficulty that formally trained black artists had in getting recognition in the first place.

Nevertheless, vernacular art endured, and its practitioners proliferated and found new purposes in the postwar civil rights atmosphere. Black people asserted to the nation at large the worth of their true history, what they had been through, what they stood for. Blacks expressed themselves in visual media even in slavery, but the majority of such artifacts, from decorated jugs to quilts, were not preserved. The political movements of the 1950s and 1960s strengthened a sense of heritage and history. As black people became more conscious of their traditions from the New World and Africa, the authority of mainstream critical values was being eroded and people were finding more intelligence, aesthetic choice and deliberation in what had often been dismissed or patronized as naive, primitive, intuitive.

The first major exhibition of vernacular art was "Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980," held at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., in 1982. Since then the art of Purvis Young, Jesse Aaron and Archie Byron, for example, has become more widely known. Thornton Dial Sr. had major exhibitions at two New York museums in 1993. The Kunstmuseum in Bern, Switzerland, and the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany, gave an exhibition of Traylor's work, "Deep Blues," in 1999. But then Traylor (1854-1949), like the sculptor William Edmondson (1870-1951) and the painter Horace Pippin (1888-1946), had long been recognized in art circles, if under the category "self-taught," as in Romare Bearden and Harry Henderson's "A History of African-American Artists: From 1792 to the Present" (1993). What the Arnetts stress in "Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art" is that the genre continues to thrive and find new exponents, even among those who were born after the era of struggle against legal segregation in the South.

After an odyssey of discovery spanning three decades, William and Paul Arnett have produced two enormous volumes (with nearly 1,800 full-color reproductions) about this indigenous art, with a promise of more. In his introduction, Paul Arnett allows that "Souls Grown Deep" is "the first comprehensive overview of the recent history" of vernacular art. The catalog is a history, though it is not organized chronologically. "We have chosen as our guide and narrator the materials of the work: stone, concrete, earth, wood, paint and paper, then iron and steel, found-object assemblage, and other forms of bricolage epitomized by the African American 'yard show.' "

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