Souls Grown Diaspora
January 11 – March 7, 2020
It’s my first time at the Laurie Beechman Theatre, a cozy basement cabaret space that’s been around since 1983 and has retained much of its original charm. A dazzling woman wearing a shiny grey two-piece is scat singing to jazz music, performing the most creative cover of “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” that I have ever heard. “I have only one request of your life…” she sings, “that you spend it all with me.” The audience laughs. Next to me, the collage artist Frederick Weston is crying. He considers the singer his sister, and the sight of her performing makes him emotional. One table over, the artist and queer icon Tabboo! looks up at the performer in awe—in the 1980s they used to share a stage at the Pyramid Club on Avenue A, where Tabboo! performed as a drag queen. The extraordinary woman in question is Stephanie Crawford, a self-described “76 year old African American post-op transgender vocal jazz musician.” She is performing in New York for one night only, in conjunction with the group exhibition Souls Grown Diaspora at the nonprofit Tribeca gallery apexart, which includes her visual work alongside that of nine other contemporary African American artists, among them Weston himself.
Souls Grown Diaspora is curated by Sam Gordon, co-founder of the Gordon Robichaux Gallery on Union Square and winner of apexart’s annual open call. The location is appropriate, as this project is in many ways the apex of Gordon’s interest in the effects of the Great Migration on American art, a topic he has been thinking through for the past few decades. Having grown up in Brooklyn, Gordon witnessed the emergence of artists such as Alvin Baltrop, Wesley Willis, and Curtis Cuffie firsthand. These three artists are included in the exhibition, together with Crawford, Weston, Reverend Joyce McDonald, Sara Penn, Raynes Birkbeck, Otis Houston Jr., and Dapper Bruce Lafitte.
What is most striking upon entering apexart is the wide range of materials from which the 74 artworks on view are created. Adorning the left wall are intricate textile pieces by Sara Penn, which reflect a knowledge of sewing and quilting passed on by her great-aunt from Alabama. Next to it, layered, evocative paintings by the self-taught Raynes Birkbeck guide the viewer towards an intimate collection of photographs by Alvin Baltrop, who is currently receiving long-delayed recognition with a retrospective at the Bronx Museum. Works by Stephanie Crawford and Frederick Weston share two adjacent walls, underlining their personal closeness. Crawford herself provides a sketch-like self-portrait in charcoal, while Weston creates elaborate likenesses of his chosen sister from collaged images of her appearances in the press. Weston’s practice extends beyond traditional forms of collage, as demonstrated by an installation of 144 discrete polaroids titled Barry (1993–96). Resembling a contact sheet, these images show the same man in various outfits, from formal to casual, leisurely to athletic.
Clay sculptures by Reverend Joyce McDonald that depict Black bodies embellished with pearls share a wall with three large drawings by the New Orleans artist Dapper Bruce Lafitte. Spread throughout the space are also sculptures by Curtis Cuffie, constructed from the most unexpected found materials, as well as signs and banners by Otis Houston Jr. Finally, the exhibition includes two pen and marker drawings of Chicago’s urban landscape by Wesley Willis, one of which comes from Gordon’s personal collection and reads “To Sam.”
What connects these works has little to do with medium or visual strategy, but rather the geographical roots of the artists. Inspired by the Atlanta-based Souls Grown Deep Foundation, which is dedicated to promoting the work of African American artists from the South, Gordon borrows from the last line of Langston Hughes’s renowned poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (2009): “My soul has grown deep like rivers.” The addition of diaspora in Gordon’s title refers to the Great Migration, which saw six million African-Americans relocate from the rural South to the urban Northeast, Midwest, and West between 1916 and 1970. Hughes’ poem speaks to the movement of his ancestors, the river functioning as a metaphor for the deep knowledge of collective heritage, passed on from generation to generation, in constant movement.
A long vitrine placed in the middle of the exhibition space demonstrates Gordon’s investment in both communicating the artists’ histories and letting these narratives speak for themselves. Each compartment is dedicated to one artist, showcasing ephemera and archival materials ranging from old photographs and handwritten notes to sheet music and press clippings. Awareness of one’s history is what’s at the core of this show. While few of the artists were actually born in the South, their familial roots and the experience of relocation radiate from their work. While many of the artists reflect on the urban landscape, they just as frequently draw on legacies of craft associated with rural life. Often using humble materials, discarded and found objects, many works grapple with racism, homelessness, and mental health, while also celebrating Black bodies, queerness, and jazz. Souls Grown Diaspora showcases what it means to work from a history of repression: to pursue artistic practice without any guarantee of commercial success, and yet feel empowered by a sense of collective identity.