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Unsettled Things: African American Southern Art

Unsettled Things: African American Southern Art

Unsettled Things: Art from an African American South is one of the most anticipated art exhibits in recent years. Slated to feature works from more than two dozen creators, it’ll offer audiences insight into the Black experience in the American South. 

The show will be on display at the new International African American Museum (IAMM) in Charleston, South Carolina. The IAAM is sure to become a critically important cultural resource.

Join us as we learn more about this powerful exhibit and the museum that’ll house it.

Let’s go!

Unsettled Things Debuts at the International African American Museum

Unsettled Things will reside at Charleston’s International African American Museum, a project more than 20 years in the making. In 2000, Mayor Joseph P. Riley, Jr. announced plans for the museum during a speech. Smithsonian Magazine described the IAAM as one of the most anticipated museum openings of 2022. The public will be able to enter on January 21, 2023.

The IAAM’s CEO and president, Dr. Tonya Matthews, says the museum will be a site of thoughtful engagement and curiosity. In a statement on the museum’s website, Dr. Matthews says, “Committed reckoning with history is a necessary stop on the road to healing and reconciliation.” The IAAM hopes to give visitors the necessary tools for that reckoning and healing.

As one of the IAMM’s first exhibits, Unsettled Things will be on view through July 2, 2023. It’ll feature works by 28 African American artists from southern US states. Though many are now well-known, several of these artists were marginalized and overlooked for years.

What Themes Does Unsettled Things Explore?

Unsettled Things organizes the works into three themes recurring throughout each artwork: life, spirit, and matter. These concepts are also present in many of the artists’ materials and methods as well as their personal stories and inspirations.

The exhibit includes a total of 44 pieces by 28 artists. As a result, visitors can expect a wide array of perspectives and artistic approaches. 

Some featured artists lived through Jim Crow-era segregation or the civil rights movement, while others had parents who were enslaved. Regardless of the eras in which they lived, these crafters and their works are sure to leave a lasting impression on audiences.

Unsettled Things Features Long Overlooked Southern Artists

The American art world wasn’t always inviting to artists of color. But over time, thanks to the work of civil rights leaders and activists, this attitude began to shift. Some of those same people overlooked in the past are well-known today.

Unsettled Things features many esteemed Black Southern artists. Let’s take a look at a few of them.

Painting on wood "Self Portrait" by Mose T.

Mose Tolliver

Mose Tolliver was born in Pike Road, Alabama, in 1919. Tolliver was a factory worker in the 1960s when he sustained a horrible work injury. A half-ton crate full of marble fell off a forklift, crushing his legs. Since he could no longer work but had a background of dabbling in art, Tolliver’s former employer suggested he begin painting full-time. 

The artist, known as Mose T., gained recognition in the 1980s. His first solo exhibition debuted at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts. Known for his vibrant colors and inventive style, he sometimes painted as many as ten pieces a day. Tolliver worked primarily with wood, but glass and even the tops of existing canvases were common for him to paint on.

Thornton Dial

Thornton Dial was born in 1928 in Emelle, Alabama. His experiences during Jim Crow segregation and the civil rights movement inspired him to fight racial oppression through art. Dial was a multimedia artist who used keen, sharp-witted titles for his work. He created sculptures, paintings, and assemblages.

Dial’s work created a bridge between mainstream American art and Southern vernacular art. But his critiques of race and class weren’t limited to the U.S. Additionally, the artist approached topics of global politics, war, and immigration through his pieces.

Lonnie B. Holley

Born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1950, Lonnie B. Holley was a foster child who experienced chaos and insecurity early in her life. A family tragedy in 1979 provided him with an unlikely path to success. Since then, he’s worked as an improvisational musician and artist.

Holley creates sculptures and collected pieces using found objects. He describes his works as narratives serving memorials of people and places. Holley is also a studio and touring musician. He’s released four albums and toured with national acts, including Deerhunter, Bon Iver, and Julia Holter.

Nellie Mae Rowe

Nellie Mae Rowe was born in Fayetteville, Georgia, on July 4th, 1900. Her father was a formerly enslaved person, and her mother was born the same year as the Emancipation Proclamation. Rowe began working at a young age, spending most of her career as a housekeeper in white homes. Her art wasn’t just a respite from a life of hard work but a way for her to define herself as a Black woman.

Rowe worked in a variety of mediums. Her drawings are colorful meditations on her life and relationships. Additionally, she decorated her home and property with art and found objects, eventually calling it her “Playhouse.” This artist surely worked hard to craft a joyful account of her lived experience.

Painting by Nellie Mae Rowe.

What Is the International African American Museum?

The IAAM is a brand-new facility located at Gadsden’s Wharf, a former slave-trading port in Charleston, South Carolina. The museum’s placement is significant in more ways than one. As many as 90% of African Americans can trace part of their ancestry to this city since it was once the busiest American port during the slave trade.

Designed by architect Henry Cobb, the museum occupies nearly 150,000 square feet. There are nine different exhibition galleries with themes ranging from the African diaspora to African Americans’ contributions to art, science, and culture.

In addition, visitors can remember and pay tribute to the legacy of enslaved and marginalized Black Americans at the IAAM. Architect Walter J. Hood designed the attached African Ancestors Memorial Garden, which features an infinity pool and exhibit space. 

The Center for Family History aims to help Black families trace genealogy records lost during their ancestors’ enslavement. This museum promises to be a resource unlike any other in the U.S.

Where Can I Learn More About Unsettled Things?

The Unfinished Business of Unsettled Things: Art from an African American South is a book published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2022. It’s a companion piece to the exhibit and explores similar themes. 

Essays cover subjects like the artists’ creative processes, ideas of enslavement and freedom in their work, and religious or spiritual influences. In addition, the book includes several full-color pages showing featured pieces.

Life, Spirit, and Matter

Unsettled Things promises to be a not-to-be-missed exhibit. Through its pieces produced by artists with unique stories, it’s likely to impart something meaningful to anyone who views it. The show will no doubt help visitors move forward toward reconciling a difficult part of U.S. history.

Do you plan to visit the Unsettled Things exhibit at the International African American Museum? Let us know in the comments.

Outside Folk Gallery

You can explore folk, street, and outsider art in our personal collection at Outside Folk Art. We’re celebrating these creatives and giving voice to rising black, Native, immigrant, and working mother artisans. 

We’ll also be offering pop-up shows and collaborations with small museums, so be sure to follow us to discover the where and when!

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