Thornton Dial's artwork appears at the entrance to the "Black Codes" exhibition at Auburn University.
Thornton Dial's "Royal Flag" marks the entrance to the "Black Codes" exhibition at the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art at Auburn University.

Art from Mia stars in groundbreaking show of Southern Black artists

By Tim Gihring //

At any given time, a small percentage of Mia’s permanent collection is scattered around the world. A single work here, a few works there. On loan to museums, universities, and other institutions for exhibitions large and small. The Death of Germanicus, by Nicolas Poussin, has been a frequent traveler. Modigliani’s Head sculpture was featured a few years ago in a massive survey of the artist’s work in Vienna. Rembrandt’s Lucretia, after arriving at Mia in 1934, spent much of the next few decades on the road—a kind of calling card that helped put the fledgling museum on the map.

From left: “Royal Flag” by Thornton Dial, “Pressure from the Burn” by Lonnie Holley, “April Nineteenth (The Number)” by Ronald Lockett. All are in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art and are now on view at the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art in Auburn, Alabama.

Now, three works recently acquired by Mia are featured in the exhibition “Black Codes: Art and Post-Civil Rights Alabama” at the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art, at Auburn University in Alabama: Royal Flag by Thornton Dial, Pressure from the Burn by Lonnie Holley, and April Nineteenth (The Number) by Ronald Lockett. The show focuses on these three artists and one other, Joe Minter, who came of age in the Birmingham, Alabama, area during or just after the civil rights movement and began making art there.

The art came to Mia a few years ago from Souls Grown Deep, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that has elevated the profile of Southern Black artists by placing hundreds of their artworks in major museums around the world—most famously the quilts made in Gee’s Bend, Alabama. At the Jule, “Black Codes” curator Aleesa Pitchamarn Alexander, of Stanford University, asserts that while the art of Dial, Holley, Lockett, and Minter often references their African-American perspective it’s not simply personal documentary but a kind of shared language, a code that unlocks “visions of alternative futures and radical archives of Black determination.”

One section shows the impact of life in Birmingham, which in the mid-2oth century was arguably “the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States,” as Martin Luther King, Jr., described it in his Letter from Birmingham Jail in 1963. Another section illustrates how this shared experience of systemic bias shaped the artists’ view of world events, from the death of Princess Diana to Hurricane Katrina to climate change. Approaching these disparate tragedies with empathy and compassion, the artists transcend the regionalism and idiosyncrasy often associated with “outsider” artists while still capturing a perspective forged in a very specific time and place.

The artists knew and mentored each other, and the code they shared was as literal as it was figurative, from similar forms and salvaged materials to nicknames and ultimately the same patron, the late William Arnett, who collected their work and championed it through Souls Grown Deep. They looked out for each other, even as they looked far beyond.

Thornton Dial, born into a sharecropping family on a  former plantation, was the senior member of the quartet and died in 2016 at 87. In the obituary in The New York Times, Arnett remembered Dial as “one of America’s greatest artists. I can’t think of any important artist who started with less or accomplished more.” Lockett was the younger cousin of Dial, shy and self-conscious, and died at 33 in 1998 of HIV-related complications. Holley, now living outside Atlanta, has enjoyed a late-career renaissance as the “outsider’s insider,” with recent shows from Miami to the Hamptons—a personal journey even more unlikely perhaps than Dial’s. Only Minter remains in Birmingham.

Joe Minter, left, in his outdoor workshop. At right, his installation honoring the four girls who died in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

Minter began filling the half-acre around his house with art in the 1980s—and still is. Called the African Village in America, the spread comprises dozens of works looking out at the world through the lens of African-American history. There are slave ships and references to police shootings and yet, as in “Black Codes,” even works devoted to events like the 2011 tsunami in Japan or wildfires in New Mexico can be seen as a form of solidarity—as Africans suffered in America, Minter says, through no fault of their own, so too have others around the world. Now, some of these pieces are making their way into the collections of museums, including Mia, which is currently showing Minter’s “Voyage in Chains” sculpture in gallery 374. When pieces leave the yard, Minter simply makes more.

Shortly after “Black Codes” opened, a group from Auburn and Tuskegee universities went to visit Minter. I arrived ahead of the group and found Minter, now 81, hauling art materials in from his pickup truck—scraps of wood and metal and other industrial detritus that he regularly retrieves from a city still digging out from the collapse of its steel industry. For an hour, he talked as we walked—about the vision from God that launched him on his art-making journey, about the “100,000 ancestors” buried in the historically Black cemeteries that surround much of his property, and about the future of this place once he’s gone.

“I’ve put three decades into this. There has to be something left so we’ll know the path to each other, to our ancestors,” he told me. Recently, a group from Birmingham has been relocating some of the works to a warehouse and a team from the University of Alabama used a drone to map the entire installation, preserving it in digital form. “I made seeds for the world. Now they’ll go everywhere.”

Read more about the Souls Grown Deep collection at Mia and the various exhibitions and projects that have come out of it.

Listen to Joe Minter explain his conceptual sculpture, and learn more about the history of these Southern artists, on The Object podcast from Mia.