Lonnie Holley came to art via tombstones. In 1979, when his sister lost two children in a house fire, Holley managed his grief by chipping away at stone, carving headstones for his niece and nephew’s graves. Afterward, he kept making sculptures and eventually began working with other materials, like wood, barbed wire, and animal bones. Despite their formal eclecticism, these pieces share a purpose: they suggest jagged totems for departed spirits. At the Morgan Library & Museum in New York, in the exhibition “Another Tradition: Drawings by Black Artists from the American South,” one of Holley’s assemblages acted as a conduit for the dead. Occupying one corner of a small square gallery, The Ancestor Throne Not Strong Enough for No Rock nor No Crack (1993) was an elegant seat for memento mori—a dirt-speckled skull, fake flowers—as well as mojos, charm bundles that offer access to sacred and ancestral powers. The wall label quoted Holley: “If we lose respect for that from which we came, we are . . . on the journey to losing our grip with reality. And art allows us to keep that grip.”
In “Another Tradition,” Holley joined a coven of artists gripping their mojos tightly. Although Holley’s cluttered throne commanded the most space, the exhibition’s main purpose was to showcase eleven drawings that the Morgan acquired in 2018 from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, which champions the oeuvres of more than 160 Black Southern artists. The acquisition includes five Souls Grown Deep artists—Thornton Dial, Nellie Mae Rowe, Henry Speller, Luster Willis, and Purvis Young. In addition to Holley’s sculptural intrusion, “Another Tradition” also featured loaned works by Sister Gertrude Morgan and Bill Traylor. The selections dated from ca. 1939 to 1996 and traversed Southern cities as distinct as Montgomery and Miami; what connected these works more than geography or chronology was a common interest in the spiritual inheritance of slave-descendant Black folk.
In an untitled 1978 work, Rowe used pen, paint, and pastel to embellish and frame a black-and-white photograph of herself standing in her yard. Dense blue ink shades a path beneath the artist’s feet, the seat of the chair behind her, and some of the foliage that surrounds her. The caption referenced Rowe’s “idiosyncratic” take on the African bottle tree: in lieu of hanging the traditional cobalt blue bottles meant for catching wayward spirits, she placed Christmas ornaments on the trees around her home and lined the walkways with bottle caps. But if cobalt is for catching spirits, Rowe has here color-coded a whole garden for them.
Blues persisted throughout “Another Tradition.” Traylor’s Blue Construction, Orange Figures (ca. 1939–42), centers on a graphic cobalt-hued structure that could be a ship and mast. Or an inverted cotton press. Or a bare-branched tree. The ambiguous shape oscillates between ominous and playful, due to the simple ocher figure that dangles from it (is he flailing in alarm or waving in greeting?) and the orange dog that guards it (as protector or warden?). Traylor was born into slavery in the mid-nineteenth century. Even without the hint provided by the haint-catching blue, this lineage would still haunt his sparse drawing.
Elsewhere, human figures were themselves exquisitely ghostly, as in Dial’s Life Go On (1990), Ladies Stand by the Tiger, and Posing Movie Stars Holding the Freedom Bird (both 1991). In each of these watercolor-and-graphite works, oblong women curve like plumes of smoke. In Posing Movie Stars, two of them (pale cerulean this time) grasp the large red-and-yellow “freedom bird” of the work’s title. Like Traylor’s central form, the bird is somewhat obscurely named, but its colors and shape still call to mind, for this viewer, the Sankofa bird—a potent symbol for the Akan people of Ghana that has permeated the diaspora. Sankofa means retrieval, and the proverb goes, “It is not taboo to go back and fetch what you forgot.”
Dial’s bird, though, doesn’t crane its head back in the classic Sankofa shape. Instead, in yet another twist of tradition that was on view in this exhibition, the bird sits upright. The women are the ones who arc their necks backward; one has flipped all the way upside-down as she holds the animal aloft. The curve of her chin follows that of the bird’s arched back. The other movie star’s arm mimics the curve of its neck; her cheek presses into the freedom bird’s breast, the yellow watercolor of its plumage bleeding into the blush of her cheek. In this exhibition, freedom and retrieval bled together too, in works that retrace history to better understand, if not transcend, its wounds. In Dial’s drawing, the three figures appear to be appendages of each other, like a new kind of totem, one whose liberating power is not distinct from but rather embodied by its practitioners. Go back and fetch what you forgot, says the Akan proverb. Keep that grip, says Lonnie Holley, to that from which we came. The artists of “Another Tradition” couldn’t let go if they tried.