Blog, Exhibitions

We Will Walk

Art and resistance in the American South

Turner Contemporary Margate 7 February -3 May 2020

Ralf Griffin Eagle from Found Wood, nails, paint
Griffin made his work from tree roots from the banks of Poplar Root Branch, the small creek behind his home. The works were created to sit outside his yard, visible to passers-by

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.

Annie-Mae Young with quilts and her great granddaughter Shaquettein Rehobeth Alabama 1993

         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, even Prince William, at the recent Bafta award ceremony, expressed his frustration at the lack of recognition of diversity within the film industry.

WE WILL WALK presents the extraordinary creativity of 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 recognised 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.

James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas was a blues musician and sculptor. He sculpted heads from unfired clay dug from local source. His subjects ranged from historical figures to local community members. He also worked as a grave digger and many of his heads include human teeth.

         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 urbanisation 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.

Blog, book review, Book Reviews

Reclaiming Style –using Salvage materials to create an elegant home

By Maria Speake & Adam Hills of Retrouvious. Words by  Hettie Judah and photography by Debbie Treloar Published by Rylands Peters and Small

Retrouvious was founded twenty years ago by partners Adam Hills and Maria Speake when they were studying architecture in Glasgow, it began as a way to help conserve the Victorian tenement buildings in the city’s reinvigorated West End. “My first eureka moment was when I realized that, because the West End of Glasgow is very homogenous architecturally, you could remove the doors and shutters and fireplaces from a building that Glasgow University was demolishing and use them in a building two or three streets away and they would fit, physically and historically,” explains Adam.

At the heart of the company is the belief that good materials and well-made things are precious; whether quarried stone or a piece of expert joinery, these objects were hard won and have an intrinsic value that argues for them to be reconditioned and intelligently reused. This book, so relevant to our time,  illustrates the principals on which the company was founded. That is to see the potential in things that might otherwise be discarded.

         Adam explains how important it is to choose the right builders to work on a job using salvaged materials. “Sometimes clients will come in wanting to use old wood, for example, then phone up sheepishly a week later saying that they can’t buy it

because their builder refuses to touch it. You definitely have to find someone who’s sympathetic to using it. Salvage is much harder work than just bunging in new stuff, and it’s not necessarily cheaper.”

Adam now takes on just about any good material that could be used in making a building, as well as all manner of apparently random oddments that he thinks might appeal to his clientele. “Once you’ve got your mind tuned to saving stuff, and to

salvage and materials and quality, you are always thinking laterally – it’s just a case of seeing what’s there and putting it in a new context,” he explains.

 “You always approach a building with first principles, by asking what it’s made out of. A lot of people would look at something like HeathrowAirport’s Terminal 2 and think that, because it’s a hideous building, there can’t be anything valuable inside it. Whereas in fact you can go inside a bit of Brutalist architecture and look up the stairs and realize that the handrail is made out of a solid piece of hardwood, or that there’s an incredible floor or interesting light fittings. You have to ignore the hideous surroundings and think of these things in a different environment. The whole principle of antiques dealing is to take something from where it’s not appreciated to somewhere that it is.”

The book is divided into particular projects and styles put together for clients of Retrouvious. Starting with Barbican Modern

‘Situated within a landmark development in central London, the corridor-style format of this 1970s apartment made for a tricky living space. The redesign focused on generating warmth and atmosphere while creating a stylish interior that nodded both to the clients’ Italian roots and the cultural significance of the building itself.’

There are chapters on lighting, stone, wood and fabric and a stockists and suppliers section. The book features the following styles of architecture, Canal side house, Garden cabin, Lakeside house, City terrace, Medieval priory, Family townhouse, Victorian villa, High rise Home, Refurbished barn and a Georgian farmhouse. An excellent and informative book.