Magpie Anthology

We Will Walk : Art and Resistance in the American South

Turner Contemporary Margate until the 3rd of May 2020 – Entry Free

The work in this extensive exhibition is by African American artists in the American South during the second half of the twentieth Century to present day. Slavery and segregation shaped the rural and industrial economies of the South and created a regime of racial terror. Much of the art in We Will Walk was made within this context.

Produced in outdoor yards, the work takes many forms, from ephemeral environments made from salvaged materials to sculptural assemblages, paintings, musical instruments and quilts. In the segregated South creators drew on black Southern cosmology, musical improvisation, American history, African traditions and more recently popular culture as materials for their work. Blues and Spiritual music were exported from the South to the rest of USA and beyond. The art in We Will Walk can be seen as a visual equivalent of this musical improvisation but has been overlooked until relatively recently.

It was during the Civil Rights protests (1954-1968) that  walking, as an act of courage and protest, came to the fore. The title of this exhibition reflects that courage and protest. To Quote Martin Luther King: “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”

Activists like the writer James Baldwin and the photographer Doris Derby went to the South to bear witness and demand change. Vast communal acts like the historic marches from Selma to Montgomery (1965) started a process of transformation that gradually allowed hidden artistic practices to become viable.

The exhibition highlights the innovative visual languages created by these artists, their relationship to history, the environment and their influence on American culture. We are in a new era of protest and resistance, just think of the recent speech given by HRH Prince William expressing his frustration at the lack of recognition of diversity within the film industry at the recent Bafta award ceremony! We Will Walk presents the extraordinary creativity of those artists working outside the mainstream for the first time in the UK.

My main purpose for visiting this exhibition was to see the quilts of Gee’s Bend, today known as Boykin. For those who haven’t heard of it, Gee’s Bend is a small community located on a former plantation in Alabama. It lies on a spit of land surrounded by the Alabama River. The deeply rural community has become world famous for their unique hand made quilts created by the women for their own use and gradually recognized and collected by outsiders. Linked to their maker’s history of poverty and hard labour on the cotton plantation, the quilts are made from repurposed materials. They contain abstract visual languages that have been developed in isolation over a hundred years. The ferry that linked Gee’s Bend to Camden, the nearest town, was removed in order to prevent the residents from registering to the right to vote and from voting during the 1960’s and was not re-instated for forty years.

The quilts are made from used clothing such as blue jeans and football shirts, their materials follow the history of American clothing, as fabrics developed and changed. It was relatively common for plantation owners to name their enslaved workers with their own names, which remain a symbol of a terrible past. Many of the quilters are descendants of people enslaved on the Pettyway Plantation, which is reflected in their names to this day. Much of the show draws on the tradition of the ‘Yard Show’, temporary outdoor environments made from salvaged materials.

The exhibition was conceived by, the artist, Hannah Collins, who spent three years researching and developing the show. She is joined by curator Paul Goodwin, professor of Contemporary Art  and urbanization at University of the Arts London. His particular interest is in fugitive art practices and place.This exhibition is worth seeing, if only as a way to view of recent history. These artists turned impossible circumstances into innovative artworks and still do so today. This is an  excellent, and deeply profound exhibition.

Words: Juliet Bawden

For more information about the exhibition: WE WILL WALK

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