Skip to content

Souls Grown Deep like Rivers

Royal Academy of Arts 17 March – 18 June 2023

Review by Andy Bay


The American art curator William Arnett is one of Georgia’s most important cultural figures. After completing his studies in art and literature at the University of Athens, GA, this son of a wealthy southern family  traveled  across Europe, Asia and Africa as a writer and curator. 

During his travels, Arnett quietly amassed the biggest collection of West African art in the world. On returning to the US, he started taking an interest in African American Art and with the support of patrons such as Jane Fonda, created the ‘Soul Grown Deep Foundation’ in 2001. Arnett’s goal was to present outsider art produced by African American artists from the Southern belt, artworks which would not otherwise have gained attention in the circles of the professional art world. 

Some of the results have recently been on show at  the Royal Academy of Arts in London. ‘Souls Grown Deep like the Rivers: Black Artists from the American South’  teems with ingeniously repurposed materials and transforms a variety of found objects and scraps into strikingly symbolic pieces. 

Rich and captivating works that are by turns fraught and poignant emblems of a neglected population seem to spring from the soil of their origins, through the hands of an eclectic group of self-taught artists.

Ralph Griffin’s dazzling eagle sculpture is assembled from pieces of wood he collected from a creek a few miles from his home. In ‘And He Hung His Head and Died’, Joe Minter uses an array of mechanical car parts, such as brackets, girders and steel joints, to construct an industrial reinterpretation of the crucifixion of Christ.

The religiosity which permeates the Southern United States is reimagined here as insightful, hopeful and redemptive. A collection of stained and distressed quilts, intricately designed with fabrics and textiles, are the work of several generations of skilled Alabaman quiltmakers, spearheaded by Martha Jane Pettway, Marlene Bennett Jones and Mary Lee Bendolph. Their  outsider art was  inspired by the plains and fields of the Deep South hinterland and were produced without any consideration of the political and economic pressures of the contemporary art world. 

The ‘Souls Grown Deep Foundation’ exhibition introduces us to an art of resistance, produced defiantly as a makeshift ‘yard show’. These artists, without any formal training, confidently made work on their own terms, giving voice to self-expression with captivating images rooted in the naked earth. Through the thoughtful work of this Foundation, their art has been made manifest.