We Will Walk – at Turner Contemporary

In 2020 the Turner Contemporary in Margate, Kent hosted a show called ‘We Will Walk – Art and Resistance from the American South’, celebrating and documenting the art of black communities in the 20th century. It was an exhilarating and moving show, with such a rush of humanity and bathed in an art spirit of the highest order. I wrote a little delayed art commentary afterwards but the show felt so profound, in many dimensions, that I struggled to do a full write-up. Here at least are some of my reflections gathered together with some photographs, to document this show.

001 What did the show dig into?
  • The yard as a site of resistance. This space that is at once public, but also a private domain; on the boundary, an interface or almost liminal space.
  • Making art as an intuitive, spiritual, innately human activity. An activity that is not dependent on education, or a market. A breadth of means expression that leaps way beyond the narrow world of square canvases.
  • The transcendental capacity of the human spirit and how art is a part of that; feeds that and is made by that.
  • The significance of this work, its importance in the story of society in 20th century in the US. It feels significant that this work has come to the UK, that we hold space for it. I feel proud that it has come to Kent – it is exciting, inspiring, respectful and educating. An opportunity for us to pay our respects to those who have suffered from the profound inequality built into our society.

And into the show…

002 The Brutality of the American dream
Eagle (1998) by Ralph Griffin; They hung me with it (1998) by Lonnie Holley;
Green pastures: the birds that didn’t learn how to fly (2008) by Thornton Dial

The quite, brutal, desolate remains of the American Dream.

003 Powerful Images, Self-Taught Artists
Works by Bill Traylor: Untitled (Exciting event with snarling dog) 1932-1942; Untitled (Preacher and Bad Man) 1939-42

Bill Traylor (1854 – 1949) was born into slavery in Alabama. After emancipation he remained as a sharecropper but in 1938 at over 80 years of age he moved to Montgomery. By day he sat on the sidewalk and drew. He made over 1,200 drawings in this late period of his life.

Carvings by William Edmondson: Ram (1938-42); Untitled (Adam and Eve or Ancient Egyptian Couple) 1940

William Edmondson (1874 -1951) was born the son of freed slaves in Tennessee. He received no formal education and worked as a manual labourer, then a hospital janitor for many years. In the Great Depression he lost his job and picked up whatever work he could in small jobs, one of which included assisting in stonemason. In 1929 he had a vision from God that prompted him to start making his own carvings. His early works were tombstones. He worked in his front yard, often using old kerb stones or stone from demolished houses. He later became the first African American to have a solo show at MOMA in 1937.

Works by Purvis Young: Talking to the System (1975); Black People Migrating West (Late 1970s)

Purvis Young, lived and worked in Miami. He was jailed for three years as a teenager, on his release he started making paintings of his community that he showed in Goodbread Alley, a row of boarded-up buildings. He was a self-taught artist but would regularly visit the local library to study the work of historic artists.

As he said: “The war was going on then, war in Vietnam. That’s when all the demonstrations were going on, protests, protestors sitting in, marching. That’s when I started the figure painting… my feeling was the world might be better if I put up my protests. I figured the world might get better, it might not, but it was just something I had to be doing.

004 Emer Sewell’s Yard

Emer Sewell, born in 1934, sweeps and rearranges materials in her yard in an almost ritualistic manner, imbuing what she has to hand with meaning.

NB. I think the photos above are by Hannah Collins, but it wasn’t clear from my notes and/or the wall texts.

005 James ‘Son Ford Thomas’s sculptures
Works by James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas – Untitled, made in 1980’s

James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas (1926 – 1993) was a blues musician and sculptor. He also worked as a gravedigger and many of his works include human teeth.

006 Exercising voting rights
Photos by Doris Derby
007 Kara Walker’s drawings

Kara Walker, born in 1969 – drawings that pack a serious punch.

008 Roots of Afrofuturism
Sun Ra
009 Gee’s Bend Quilters

Gee’s Bend is a small isolated community on a former plantation on the bend of a river in Alabama. Their quilts, made from whatever scraps and materials they could find, have become well known. Hung here, on large gallery walls, they felt reminiscent of a room of Rothko’s paintings. They have that same scale and presence.

010 The curators

The curators did a great job! The show was curated by Paul Goodwin and Hannah Collins. Their texts were written with clarity and intellectual depth; both accessible and opinionated. They actively take on the curator’s role as circus ringmaster, animating the exhibits with rhythm and panache. They argue for an interpretation of some the works as visual improvisation akin to Jazz. In some ways the genesis for the show seems to lie with Hannah Collins own photographic work – she has spent considerable time documenting sites of historic and cultural importance in the Deep South. Together with Goodwin’s career focused on the works of black and diaspora artists, they bring a deep sensitivity and inspired interpretation to the show.

The curators have put together an excellent timeline and notes to the show, available to download.