LOS ANGELES — My paternal grandmother died when I was five years old, before I could make a real memory of her. My recollections of her are glimpses of costume jewelry and the saccharine, milky coffee she drank. With my Grandma Bettie, I lost details of my family’s great migration, but I felt the South’s presence in my home through the stories my father told of his mother’s life in Waycross, Georgia. Having never visited, the small town’s influence still loomed in my life because of this intergenerational lore.
At the California African American Museum (CAAM), Dust My Broom: Southern Vernacular from the Permanent Collection congregates a group of largely self-taught artists from the American South, and other Black artists profoundly influenced by it. (The exhibition’s name originates from the blues tune “Dust My Broom,” the phrase itself stemming from the Depression-era South, meaning to get up and go with no intent to come back.)
The exhibition brings rightful shine to these artists, celebrating the minor victories of daily Southern life in the face of glaring racial injustices buoyed by Jim Crow over generations. This cohort of mostly outsider artists is shown alongside the likes of Betye Saar and David Hammons, both deeply inspired by Southern aesthetics, ruminating on American racism and its roots in the South, which then writhed across the rest of the nation.
In this convening of vernacular art, you’ll often find the application of found objects and nods to domestic work through the brilliant use of textile. Throughout Dust My Broom, the artists’ works speak with one another with earthy hues and cerulean blues, like bright skies and coastal waters.
The narrow entrance to the exhibition is lined by folk paintings, precious and small, by artists like Purvis Young and Sam Doyle. Inside, a vitrine houses Nellie Mae Rowe’s statuettes made of chewing gum. A wall text explains the Georgian artist gave gum to the children in her neighborhood on one condition: they were to return the chewed wads when they were through. Simultaneously grotesque and whimsical, the miniatures made from the hardened candy, decorated with paint, buttons, and beads, offer absurd, quaint talismanic figurines.
Southern Christianity and ancestral spirituality are also major themes in Dust My Broom. Dominique Moody’s striking, imposing shrine, “Ancestral Praise House,” pieces together natural materials — shells of all sorts and sizes, geodes, and seaweed — to recreate the prayer homes built and used by coastal Gullah women. She creates a mosaic out of salvaged mirror and stained glass from firebombed churches — shards fragmented by targeted racial violence — which form an interpretation of sea and sun, intertwined with silhouettes of ancestral spirits reaching toward the sky.
Another strong standout by Moody, “Reunion” offers a family, their figures collaged together, tight-knit under the protection of an umbrella, with tear-shaped droplets of crystal — rain — falling around them as they clasp at each other with loving hands, pulling closer.
In André Leon Gray’s “Membership Has Its Privileges” (2014), the North Carolina artist replaces the interior of a Jim Crow-era country club tennis racket with opaque, impenetrable wood bearing the phrase “I am a man” — a common slogan employed during the 1968 sanitation worker strikes in Memphis.
Standing tall and gorgeously assured on the gallery floor is Allison Saar’s divine female figure, “Foison” (2011), tearing herself open to reveal cotton and moths bounded within her indigo interior, symbolic of embedded generational trauma and memory of slavery, the agriculture central to American infrastructure and economics through the oft-forgotten labor of slaves.
Dust My Broom is lyrical in its ability to sing the history of an oppressed people. I walked away from it considering the evergreen idea that your ancestors’ experiences are inextricable from your own; their wisdom is inherent, patiently revealing itself as your life proceeds. The artists featured — whether raised in the American South or deeply affected by their generational ties to it as Black Americans — parse their intimately personal and collective histories. Black Americans are often seen as a community without a culture, without a country; our culture is often trivialized or erased. In their acts of creative defiance and affection, these artists uplift it with their praise.
Dust My Broom: Southern Vernacular from the Permanent Collection, curated by Mar Hollingsworth, continues at the California African American Museum (600 State Drive, Exposition Park, Los Angeles) through March 15.