‘The Joy Of Creation’: Inside Souls Grown Deep Like The Rivers At The RA

In conversation with the curator of the RA’s ground-breaking exhibition

Now on at the Royal Academy of Arts is a groundbreaking exhibition showcasing the collective creativity of Black artists from the American South, many made from found and reclaimed materials, and many seen for the first time outside of America’s so-called ‘Black Belt’. But what inspired Souls Grown Deep like the Rivers? And how did it come about? In the latest episode of Break Out Culture, we chatted with the exhibition’s curator, Raina Lampkins-Fielder, to learn more.

Raina Lampkins-Fielder On Curating Souls Grown Deep Like The Rivers At The RA

‘This really is a groundbreaking show,’ says Charlotte Metcalf on our latest episode of Break Out Culture. Now on at the RA, Souls Grown Deep like the Rivers is an exploration of Black artwork from the American Deep South. All of the exhibition’s works have been loaned by the Souls Grown Deep foundation from Atlanta, Georgia in the US – a collection formed by the late writer, curator and art collector William S Arnett, who was dedicated to the preservation and documentation of African American art from the Deep South. The name of the foundation – and of the exhibition – derives from a 1921 Langston Hughes poem, and the foundation aims to place the collections in museums around the world, returning the proceeds to the communities of origin.

Joe Light, Blue River Mountain, 1988

Joe Light, Blue River Mountain, 1988. Enamel on wood, 81.3 x 121.9 cm. Souls Grown Deep Foundation, Atlanta. © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2022. (Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio)

‘I’ve been to the show, not knowing at all what to expect, and the first room alone blew me away with the power of the imagery, much of it made from recycled and found materials like old rags, clothing, scrap metal, rusty tools, old paint tins, driftwood and found materials like animal bones and feathers. What’s astonishing is the beauty and spirit that emerge,’ says Charlotte in Episode 110 of Break Out Culture, commenting that the first room ‘elicits a very visceral response’.

‘I really wanted that first room to be in a way an introduction to the various concerns materially thematically between the various artists coming from the South,’ says Raina Lampkins-Fielder, curator of Souls Grown Deep like the Rivers. ‘Obviously, they weren’t all friends and they didn’t all know each other. But there are definite familial and creative connections that one can find between the artists in the first room. It’s a wonderful visual feast when you enter that space.’

Ronald Lockett, Sarah Lockett's Roses, 1997

Ronald Lockett, Sarah Lockett’s Roses, 1997. Tin, nails, and enamel on wood, 129.5 x 123.2 x 3.8 cm. Souls Grown Deep Foundation, Atlanta. © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2022. (Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio)

Raina later adds: ‘Obviously the artists are looking at themes that have affected them personally, and so there are certainly many works, subjects and materials that are used that really reverberate with the South’s painful history: the history of enslaving people, of lynching and the Jim Crow era. But at the same time, allowing oneself to create really is an act of freedom. There’s a joy that runs through this exhibition – the joy of creation.’

Hear more about Raina’s curation process in Episode 110 of C&TH‘s Break Out Culture podcast, or find it on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.


Souls Grown Deep like the Rivers: Black Artists from the American South runs from 17 March–18 June 2023. 

The Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler Galleries, Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BD


Featured image: Lonnie Holley, Keeping a Record of It (Harmful Music), 1986. Salvaged phonograph top, phonograph record, animal skull, 34.9 x 40 cm. Souls Grown Deep Foundation, Atlanta. © 2023 Lonnie Holley / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London. (Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio)