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  • Writer's pictureQyya

'Souls Grown Deep Like the Rivers' and Sankofa

The West African concept of Sankofa is a powerful reminder of the importance of recollection in understanding our past and present in order to shape our future. It emphasises the need to look back and retrieve what may have been lost, forgotten or erased in order to create a better understanding of who we are and where we come from. This concept has particular relevance to the arts, where the recollection of knowledge is essential for the creation of meaningful works that reflect complex emotions and stories. The arts are a powerful medium for discussion and artists often draw on their own histories, experiences, and cultural heritage to inform their work. Connections to these knowledges are especially important when it comes to communities with broken or disrupted histories, where this recollection has the double function of both unearthing and preserving.

This retrieval is also a radical act of reclaiming deeper historical identities that have been erased or suppressed by dominant narratives, which is particularly relevant for Black diaspora communities, who have historically been marginalised and silenced by the dominant cultures in which they reside. The arts serve as a tool for disrupting the existing narratives that reduce these histories and cultures to simplistic stereotypes or erase them altogether.

The acknowledgement of where this already exists facilitates and empowers work towards restoring intact cultural lineages and encourages its continuance both within those communities and from others in support. A wonderful example of the contemporary push to redress the imbalance is the Royal Academy of Arts' current exhibition 'Souls Grown Deep Like the Rivers' which showcases the work of African American artists from the American South, provides a platform for these often overlooked artists, and celebrates their contributions to the cultural heritage of the United States. This exhibition demonstrates the rectification of existing narratives and provides a more nuanced and authentic understanding of history and culture of the Deep South.

The works in 'Souls Grown Deep Like the Rivers' reflect the difficult conditions in which many of these artists lived, and their lack of access to materials. They often turned to found objects as a means of creating art, using discarded materials such as bottle caps, tin cans, and even bones to create sculptures and other works. This use of found objects can be seen as an act of Sankofa, reclaiming and repurposing materials that have been discarded and transforming them into objects of meaning and reverence. Their artistic choices and the materials they had available are a stark commentary on the social and economic realities of Black communities in the South, both historically and today, and the incredible capacity for acts of creation with minimal resources. The works are sometimes difficult to engage with because they radiate the pain of the stories they are telling or transmit the energy of discomfort that was daily life in a hostile environment. There are, however, also celebrations of love, expressions of humour and displays of pure beauty.

Through their work, these artists are reclaiming deeper historical identities that have been erased or suppressed by dominant narratives, particularly around rituals of love, death and connection to African forebears. Telling of their highs and lows in their own voices and reclaiming a humanity that was so vehemently denied. In this way, these found objects function on multiple levels simultaneously and exude that power in their transformation from ‘trash’ to instruments of storytelling.

Exhibitions like this locate these experiences within a larger context so that it is both acknowledged and honoured, and gives voice to traditionally silenced communities. This has great meaning for subsequent generations of artists who are then reconnected to a lineage upon which to build. By looking back and retrieving what may have been lost or forgotten, we are able to create a more nuanced and authentic understanding of our history and culture, which can then be reflected in our work.

The experience of sharing space with these works is one that has sat quietly but consistently with me over the last weeks. It has made me think a lot about artistic standards of ‘perfection’ that I feel often substitute beauty for meaning, and one of the things I love most about some of the works was the inclusion and celebration of ‘imperfection’. Quilt designs that eschewed the idea of symmetry, figures with uneven features, or the acceptance of the ragged nature of the objects making up a sculpted piece. To me they represented the uneven nature of us as human beings and our messy relationships to ourselves and each other. They felt honest.

It also made me think about what art I want to create and why I feel the need to do it. I hadn’t seen these stories told in this way in a place like the RA before, and that communicated something deep to me. On one level it was acceptance, on another it was permission, and yet another, encouragement. This is what it means to see yourself represented and demonstrates why representation is something worth fighting for. When one is able to place oneself in the constellation of history, the past is illuminated in a way that can also light and guide the future.

Sankofa is an idea that I have been thinking about for a long time, a companion of sorts that forms some piece of a framework for the way I interact with knowledge, history and my own questions of lineage and identity. ‘Souls Grown Deep Like Rivers’ felt to me an exercise of Sankofa–a remembering of an experience in my blood, connections to stories that were immediately familiar and accessible–the voices of my grandmothers reminding me who I am and pointing towards the path ahead.

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