Check It Out:

History Refused to Die Exhibit at NYC Met

June 18, 2018 | Revolution Newspaper |


Strip Medallion quilt
Annie Mae Young (American, Boykin, Alabama 1928–2012 Alberta, Alabama)

There is an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City which should not be missed. It is a modest exhibit, just a little over two rooms, but it is filled with centuries of history up to the present. It is called History Refused to Die: Highlights from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation Gift, and the artists exhibited are all self-taught Black Southerners. These artists have been called “outsiders” or “outliers,” but as an article referring to the exhibit says: “Let’s just call all of it art.” A striking element of these works is the artists taking everyday objects, scraps, discarded and “found” pieces to make you feel the humanity of the lives they present, through a wide range of artistic works—sculptures, murals, paintings, assemblages, and, very strikingly, quilts.

To start with the quilts: Some made of worn denim work clothes—lighter blue worn where people have knelt, brighter where the pockets were. Others are pulsing with motion in colors and shapes. Some are based on traditional quilt patterns. One shows the “big house” and four slave cabins by the river. All are filled with history, emotion, toil, and creativity.

The sculpture Four Hundred Years of Free Labor was a riveting presence: Shovels, pickaxes, hoes, pitchforks, and chains welded together, standing as warriors and witnesses—defiant, tired, demanding recognition and justice. Other works also evoked different elements of the continuing oppression of Black people: Jim Crow in The End of November: The Birds That Didn’t Learn How to Fly—dead blackbird-like wads of cloth on a clothesline in front of a mottled background. The construction titled History Refused to Die is made of okra plant roots, torn drawings, painted wads of cloth, chains, bars, and a myriad of other “found” objects evoking centuries of toil and troubles. Another one references the war in Iraq, ironically titled Victory in Iraq, with metal scraps, barbed wire, gaunt iron bars in a V shape, again “found objects,” this time conjuring up total destruction and rending apart of a whole country.

These are just a few of the very striking and moving pieces in this exhibit. If you are in New York before September 23, make it a priority to check this exhibit out, both for a sense of history and also because this exhibit does what art does—it is higher than life.

Four Hundred Years of Free Labor, Joe Minter (American, born Birmingham, Alabama, 1943)

The End of November: The Birds That Didn't Learn How to Fly
Thornton Dial (American, Emelle, Alabama 1928–2016 McCalla, Alabama)

History Refused to Die
Thornton Dial (American, Emelle, Alabama 1928–2016 McCalla, Alabama)

Victory in Iraq
Thornton Dial (American, Emelle, Alabama 1928–2016 McCalla, Alabama)

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