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BLACK LIVES MATTER: METMUSEUM

Influenced by a bold, untampered sense of emotion, Thornton Dial’s artwork tugs at the heartstrings as he narrates stories of struggle, resilience and endurance in the face of harsh social undercurrents

An assemblage with political overtones and undertones of history – a show that reaffirms the truth that black lives matter. This exhibition presented thirty paintings, sculptures, drawings and quilts by self-taught contemporary African-American artists to celebrate the 2014 gift to The Metropolitan Museum of Art of works of art from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation. The artists represented by this generous donation all hail from the American South.

History Refused to Die features the mixed-media art of Thornton Dial (1928-2016) – whose monumental assemblage from 2004 provides the exhibition's title – and a selection of the renowned quilts from Gee's Bend, Alabama, by quilters such as Annie Mae Young (1928-2012), Lucy Mingo (born 1931), Loretta Pettway (born 1942) and additional members of the extended Pettway family. Among other accomplished artists to be featured are Nellie Mae Rowe (1900-1982), Lonnie Holley (born 1950) and Ronald Lockett (1965-1988).

Thornton Dial's assemblages show what a keen observer of the human spectacle and its narratives of corruption and moral strength, folly and triumph Thornton Dial was. Through a host of materials, Dial explored the truth of American history and culture in all its complexities and contradictions. A sharecropper's son with a third grade education, a self taught artist, Dial created assemblages that address the most compelling issues of our time but the beauty is the ingenuity and innovation of using materials.

Challenged canons of art history

Joanne Cubbs, his curator who introduced his brilliance to the high brow art world in 2010, said he "challenges the canons of art history. You could say in many ways that Dial's artwork represents a missing chapter in American art history and serves as a kind of emissary for the rich, and yet unrecognised, tradition of black vernacular art for the South."

"Dial's work defied the stereotype of what self-taught art looks like – it was bold, expressive and provided insight into some of the deepest sociopolitical issues in contemporary history," curator Cubbs said. "He changed the art world's conception of who artists were or could be and where art comes from. He confused the stereotypes normally assigned to artists … who were 'untrained' in the conventional sense."

Art from trash

To create his art, Dial employed a vast universe of symbolically charged materials – gathered from waste – plastic grave flowers, children's toys, bed springs and carpet scraps, cow skulls and goat carcasses. Dial savaged his materials from garbage cans and trash heaps, these items reappear in dense accumulations amidst the artist's fields of dripped paint and expressionistic brushworks. In his work, The End of November: The birds that didn't learn how to fly – he uses paint rags and old gloves to give us a metaphor for hanging blackbirds. The subtitle is meant to suggest the lynching and terror visited on blacks in the South. Birds represent freedom in his symbolic universe, and the inability to fly here suggests the early denial or absence of liberty. Come November, the birds are unable to migrate to warmer weather and thus are left to die. The narrative tugs at your heartstrings.

History Refused to Die – the title comes from Dial's spectacular, tall, freestanding 2004 assemblage, a multi- layered, ambiguous yet articulate accumulation of unlikely found materials (okra stalks and roots, tin, wire, Masonite, steel chain, clothing, collaged drawings, enamel, and spray paint) modulated by rich, unexpected, broken colour that creates counter-rhythms to the aggressively irregular surface. Dial gives viewers in New York a lesson in the power of installation as a spectacle and how to create history from the debris of human life.

Victory in Iraq

The second most vital work with strong political ramifications is Victory in Iraq (2004). A mixed-media tableau featuring painted found materials tucked in and around V-shaped metal rods. Dial, a former welder in a railway-carriage factory, uses rusty metal cans, stuffed animals, a mannequin's head, crumpled steel and metal mesh to evoke a battlefield's chaotic atmosphere – and portray a slice of its landscape of destruction with rare ingenuity. Dial presents the magic of materials – on how they can be used to capture a political narrative.

Slavery and oppression

Over the years, Dial tackled a wide range of social and political subjects in his art, from gripping commentaries on the homeless, the abuse of the environment and the failings of global capitalism to haunting meditations on the War in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina and the tragedy of 9/11. Dial was concerned with representing those otherwise rendered invisible within the contours of history – the plight of women, labourers, the rural poor and the impoverished underclass all came into his commentaries. He also examined the long history of racial oppression in America. 'Recounting the atrocities of slavery and Southern sharecropping, the aspirations of the Great Migration, the flight for Civil Rights, and other episodes in black memory, these pieces form a powerful anthology on the human struggle for freedom and equality.'

Dial, who died at his home near Birmingham, Alabama, in early 2016, left a message of hope, elegiac elegance and immortal beauty, in his works. At the Metmuseum, his History Refused to Die (2004), the freestanding, mixed-media sculpture neatly summarises his worldview in a world that needs to pause and think about the purpose of man's presence in a world driven by greed. Dial stands for an important achievement of black self-taught artists of the American South, born of extreme deprivation and social cruelty, raw talent and fragments of lost African cultures.

Uma Nair

Uma Nair

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