Our Faith Affirmed is a current exhibit at the University of Mississippi Museum of Art. On exhibit are the works of 27 African American self-taught artists born between 1900 and 1959, including Thornton Dial Sr., Roy Ferdinand, Bessie Harvey, Lonnie Holley, Charlie Lucas, Jimmy Lee Sudduth, and Purvis Young. I am familiar with the work of these artists from my readings, but growing up far away in Canada (both in distance and culture), I have no first-hand knowledge of their lives. I know that the vast majority of my international readers will agree that we have a lot to learn about this particular genre and even more to learn about America’s Southern culture, both past and present.
Recently, I had the good fortune to converse with scholar/collector Gordon W. Bailey through my blog. Mr. Bailey organized and curated the exhibition and has an extensive collection of work by African American self-taught artists. He kindly forwarded a catalogue of Our Faith Affirmed to me.
In his catalogue essay, UM alumnus, and now acclaimed rapper, Jason “PyInfamous” Thompson, wrote that the artists’ works are not traditional because “no artist – no person – that has endured the sweltering, seething heat of Southern segregation and sectarianism can be considered ‘traditional.’ In a land where tradition included nooses and nihilism, there was a necessity to express the anxiety and anguish that came with being Black in the South.”
My own studies have focused on how we define “outsider” art. As I settle in to write my thesis on this very topic, I can tell you that there is no single definition that we all agree on. Some writers focus on the self-taught aspect of the work; others point to the marginality of the artists; while others consider an artist’s biography as the most important indicator of being outside – or inside (outside or inside of what?). Unfortunately, the ball of entwined definitions is still very tangled and I can only hope to shed some light on why we defend our own views with such tenacity.
The artists in this exhibit, states the catalogue, are unique individuals who have unique iconographies, but share context. That context is, of course, the “otherness” of poverty, racism, and segregation. And, I think, that distinguishes the art of Southern self-taught artists from everything else. They have a shared language because they have a shared history. Roger Cardinal described art brut (outsider art) as a “teaming archipelago rather than a continent crossed by disputed borders. The only connection between each ‘island of sensibility’ is that they are all distinct from the cultural mainland. The only likeness is within the work of a single artist.” I would suggest, however, that most Southern self-taught artists live on the same continent.
Take, for example, Roy Ferdinand’s Sulton Rogers Portrait and Charles Gillam’s carving of Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong. They celebrate two great African American men from their respective communities. Jimmy Lee Sudduth’s Cotton Wagon expresses the back-breaking work of cotton pickers he undoubtedly knew, disconnected from each other, bent with exhaustion. Joe Light’s Colored Hobo asks us to consider the fate of one African American man – a homeless vagabond. Even the breathtaking canvases of Thornton Dial, whose work trumps those of the very best abstract expressionists, express more than meets the eye: they speak to American history and politics, particularly racism, and bigotry.
The works in this exhibit take us far beyond “self-taught” art that we know in the bigger world of outsider art. These are not fantasy images, they are real and they spring from personal experience. If you have an opportunity to do so, see the exhibit (which runs until August 8, 2015) or browse through the catalogue and reflect on the sobering messages beyond the images. They highlight issues that are still relevant today.
(All images provided courtesy of the Gordon W. Bailey Collection)