Turner Contemporary to exhibit powerful and cogent American civil rights artwork

Turner Contemporary will showcase art from the American South during the civil rights movement for the first time in the U.K. beginning from today.

The recently re-opened modern art museum, situated at the shores of Margate, held a press preview on Tuesday, February 4th to reveal the periodic exhibition “We Will Walk – Art and Resistance in the American South”, featuring black-and-white photographs, wooden sculptures, enchanting paintings, and colourfully-patterned quilts by more than 20 African-American artists from the Deep South – and especially, Alabama.

The exhibition was planned and realised by British artist, photographer, and Turner Prize nominee Hannah Collins after sojourning and criss-crossing in the state of Alabama for three years, interviewing local artisans and capturing the vivid and vivacious moments of them creating artwork with her camera lens – many of which addressed the pressing issues of race and class through resistance.

In her opening remarks, Ms. Collins said that because many of the compositions were outside of the mainstream, they failed to get the recognition that they deserved in spite of the meticulous, captivating, and vital retelling of the neglected history of a deprived and shackled people, stressing that “we need to construct a show to document history”.

The modern art museum would display never-before-seen compositions by more than 20 different African-American artists on this side of the Atlantic for the first time

Paul Goodwin, co-curator of the exhibition alongside Ms. Collins and Professor of Contemporary Art and Urbanism at the University of the Arts London, said the art on display in the exhibition “speaks to some of the many concerns of our times”, referencing the ubiquitous themes of poverty and protest present in many of the compositions.

“We live in a time of increased division globally, and the works in this exhibition really provide proposals to how people could overcome difficult circumstances – economic circumstances, cultural circumstances, questions of race, for example,” Professor Goodwin explained.

“And it’s traditional art-making that this show reveals that goes back to the early 20th century, that comes out of a particular region – the American South, that comes out of a particular experience of African-American art-making, that until now have been submerged and not really well-known,” he added.

The co-curator said “We Will Walk” shall form a part of a series of exhibitions which would start recalling the untold stories unprecedentedly in Europe.

The U.A.L. professor also mentioned the significance of organising the exhibition in Margate: “We’re in the region Margate, a city which faces challenges: there’s lots of – high poverty levels; unemployment is quite high; lots of migrants here; lots of strong Brexit sentiment.

“And, I think, it’s quite an interesting time to have this show that people can kinda reflect on how artists under circumstances that are really difficult could produce work which overcomes that and producing such beauty as you see in this gallery.”

“It’s history that’s not been recognised,” Hannah Collins said.
We Will Walk – Art and Resistance in the American South. Image Courtesy: Turner Contemporary. Photograph: © Stephen White

Much of the artwork on display drew upon the “Yard Show” tradition by creating them from salvaged materials in ephemeral outdoor environments.

Examples of such include an awe-inspiring collection of quilts from Gee’s Bend, an isolated hamlet in Alabama, which were made from old clothes like blue jeans by a group of women and a series of guitars by Freeman Vines, including one crafted from the wood of an old hanging tree.

Such art-making tradition often emanated not only from necessity and custom but also due to the preservation of culture and perseverance in connecting one’s roots to place, nature, and history notwithstanding the unpleasantness – Mr. Vines’s guitar was more explicit in its visualisation of agony and mortality as the wood from the tree in which he used to produce his instrument with was previously used for lynchings. 

Professor Goodwin also highlighted the difference between “We Will Walk” and other art installations and thanked Turner Contemporary for organising the exhibition: “At a time when many exhibitions are large touring exhibitions, where you get the same shows that are repeated in different exhibitions, this exhibition stands out.

“It has a really strong thesis and strong argument, and its work is not that well-known, and so, it’s always a risk for a gallery to take on a project like this.”

“I think people would be surprised… because some of them at first glance don’t necessarily look like artworks,” Prof. Goodwin said.
Dinah Young’s Yard #2. Photograph: © Hannah Collins

Sarah Martin, Head of Exhibitions at Turner Contemporary, said the museum has been working on the project with the two co-curators Hannah Collins and Paul Goodwin for three years, and that both she and Ms. Collins have been on numerous visits to Alabama in researching for the exhibition.

“(Ms.) Hannah (Collins) and I made a number of research visits to Alabama and other parts of the South to see the work in-situ, because some of this work is very site-specific; also to meet the artists and to see work in collections in museums and galleries.

“Although this work is, in many ways, very specific to a particular part of the world, i.e.: the Deep South of the United States, it talks about themes that feel incredibly contemporary and relevant now, in relation to things like protest and civil rights and also recycling and repurposing of materials, which is a very, very potent issue today,” she added.

Ms. Martin said the reason as to why the museum has decided to show the artwork was not only because of the “power in the work” itself but also its relative obscurity in Britain.

“It’s not very well-known in the United States, either, but actually, most of the work in the exhibition has never been shown in the United Kingdom – or in Europe – before,” she explained, “so it’s a real opportunity to show this work and this practice, and introduce these artists to a whole new audience in the U.K.”  

Additionally, archive prints on loan from Atlanta’s High Museum of Art would be featured in the museum alongside various other oeuvres of public and private collections from the U.S., including artists such as Kerry James Marshall and Angela Davis, who spent their childhood in the South and have both moved to Alabama, whose work examines the enduring influence of the Civil Rights era.

The exhibition is funded by Art Fund and the Henry Moore Foundation.

We Will Walk – Art and Resistance in the American South”, Turner Contemporary, Margate, February 7th, 2020 – May 3rd, 2020.

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