As embodiments of the African American experience and cultural legacies, the works of art featured in Cosmologies from the Tree of Life: Art from the African American South are rooted in African aesthetic legacies, familial tradition, and communal ethos. Previously marginalized as “folk or self-taught” art, they now take their rightful place as significant contributors to the canon of American Modernism. As artists, they imbued their works with a sense of individualistic style, yet they often embraced shared narratives that spoke to cultural, familial, and communal preoccupations. Employing an impressive breadth of media, the works in Cosmologies from the Tree of Life celebrate their imprint in sculpture, quilting, painting, and works on paper. This exhibition’s works of art were acquired by VMFA from the Atlanta-based Souls Grown Deep Foundation an organization whose mission it is to showcase works by African American artists from the South. Artists featured in VMFA’s exhibition include Jessie Aaron, Louisiana Bendolph, Thornton Dial, Lonnie B. Holley, Ronald Lockett, Rita Mae Pettway, Jimmy Lee Sudduth, James “Son” Thomas, Mose Tolliver, Purvis Young, and others. An impressive selection of quilts display the unique artistry of the famed multigenerational group of quilt-making women in Gee’s Bend, Alabama.
The Souls Grown Deep Foundation celebrates the invaluable contributions that African American artists have made to art and culture in the United States and beyond. Its mission states that the Foundation is
“dedicated to documenting, preserving, and promoting the contributions of artists from the African American South, and the cultural traditions in which they are rooted. We advance our mission by advocating the contributions of these artists in the canon of American art history, accomplished through collection transfers, scholarship, exhibitions, education, public programs, and publications.”
Since 2014, the Foundation has transferred more than 350 works of art to leading art museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the High Museum. VMFA’s 34 acquisitions add to the museum’s deep holdings of African American art, which are among the largest and finest of any encyclopedic art museum in the country.
Cosmologies from the Tree of Life, which showcases VMFA’s acquisitions from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, gives visitors the opportunity to view these works of art individually and collectively, and to consider their historical roots and their contributions not only to African American art history but also to the larger canon of art in the wake of cultural and social marginalization that their makers endured. The persistence of the artists and the undeniable imprint of their work enable scholars to retrace and, in doing so, reframe American Modernism to embrace such aesthetics rooted in the South and the contributions of these artists. Adding to its significance, the exhibition coincides with American Evolution, commemorating the 400th anniversary of historic events in 1619, including the arrival of the first enslaved African people to Virginia.