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  • Southern WatersA Visual Perspective
  • Introduced by Bernard L. Herman and with commentary by William Arnett

“Water always finds a way,” a carpenter once explained, evaluating years of roof damage concealed behind a failed soffit. The same holds true for the presence of water as a recurring motif in the art of the American South. Work by Thornton Dial, Georgia Speller, Lonnie Holley, Ronald Lockett, Joe Minter, Thornton Dial Jr., Purvis Young, Jimmy Lee Sudduth, Joe Light, and Ralph Griffin offers multiple perspectives on water as a powerful metaphor speaking to deep histories of African American experience in the South. In their work, water finds a way in the description and critique of power. The images represented in this portfolio reveal some of that coded metaphorical flow.

The conflicted, sometimes paradoxical, representations of water in these works address water as barrier and avenue, as threatened, as a shaper of historical identities. Something to be crossed; something that resists crossing. Something that gives life; something that can be poisoned and deadly. Water is the promise on the other side of River Jordan; it is the deadly highway and misery of the Middle Passage. Water is defined by too much (flood) and too little (drought). Water is allegorical, metaphorical, and historical. It is about regulation and resistance.

The art works represented here are housed in the Souls Grown Deep Foundation. William Arnett, the Foundation’s founder, assembled the collection over a thirty-year period, during which he travelled throughout the South and interviewed the artists. Much of the art is reproduced in the two monumental Souls Grown Deep volumes, along with extended discussion of the art and its makers. Arnett selected the artworks illustrated here, offering a commentary on each one in a recorded conversation in 2013. In the same year, he made arrangements for housing the Souls Grown Deep Archive in the Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The works illustrated here and many more can be examined online at The art of Ronald Lockett, discussed below, is the subject of an upcoming 2016 exhibition at the Ackland Art Museum at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans. [End Page 63]

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Georgia Speller, Boat on the River, House on the Hill (1987), tempera and pencil on wood, 18.25 × 30 inches. In this diptych, Georgia Speller shows two landscapes: “On the left is one of the big tourist riverboats and on the right is a gentrified house up on the hill. Those are like two components of white culture or gentrified civilization that she is excluded from . . . The water is where the riverboat goes. But, as her husband Henry Speller said to me once, the only time black folks are able to do something with the river is when they’re working on the levee loading and unloading things and even walking out into the water to put things on and off boats. It’s almost like a white swimming pool. They’re not allowed in it unless they’re working.” The same holds true for life in and around the big house on the hill.

[End Page 64]

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Joe Light, The Incredible Hobo (1988), enamel on wood, 48 × 96 inches. William Arnett explains, “There is Joe Light with his hobo, which is his alter ego, looking for enlightenment. Joe Light did four of these, each one a different color. One is black, one is brown, one is red, and one is white. He is showing his own racial makeup, and also the racial makeup of the people in his class, which is part black, part white, part Native American.” Although autobiographical on the surface, Light’s work speaks to larger histories of race and the quest for understanding: “The water is the separation again from every man walking along trying to find enlightenment and the enlightened phase of civilization, which is represented here by mountains separated by a river. Light shows us nature in terms of a mountain and a river and grass growing. He carries...


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