Mary Tillman Smith (1904-1995) grew up in Mississippi in a poor family of tenant farmers. Suffering from a severe hearing disorder, she had no option but to work in the fields. The art she created is seen as a vibrant and radical expression of a movement that was bubbling in the southern United States in the years that followed Martin Luther King’s assassination. Smith is now considered as one of the most important figures of African-American Art Brut (often translated as outsider art).
Perhaps it was the isolation she must have suffered as a child that gave her such a unique artistic vision of the world. However it was only when she reached her seventies that Smith finally transcribed her ideas, transforming her modest bungalow into an explosion of colour, faces, words and shapes. Her work was originally painted on scrap pieces of corrugated iron, wooden planks, fences and walls, turning her property into a creative yard sale, a southern-state phenomenon that occurred in the late Sixties.
When she was discovered by art collectors and dealers, Smith started painting on plywood panels in response to the high demand, trying to replace the art she sold. But poor health saw production dwindle, finances run dry, and she died with nothing.
The Christian Berst gallery in Paris’ 3rd arrondissement, just down the road from the Pompidou Centre, is showcasing a selection of Smith’s pieces in an exhibition entitled “Mississippi Shouting”. A short accompanying projection at the far end of the room is a great addition, contextualising and colouring our understanding of how Smith painted, with some wonderful clips of her house and yard completely covered with paintings. Like South-African artist Helen Martins, also known for her Art Brut style, Mary Smith’s art is intrinsically connected to its environment. The artist reclaims her own property through imposing her aesthetic on the surroundings.
Smith’s painting are her family, friends, animals and self-portraits- often with slogans regarding her strong Christian faith, sometimes unintelligible, or simply related to mundane life. Colours are bold with sharp contrasts between broad outlines and monochrome backgrounds, her style evolving through her career, as William Arnett explains: “If the early paintings (…) used black descriptively to outline figures or to fill in their contours, later works used black (…) as a mere foil for coaxing out the possibilities of secondary colors or for upending the anticipated relationships between nominally “positive” and nominally “negative” spaces.” Arnett has written a beautiful piece on Smith, which can be found in the gallery’s book on the exhibition.
I enjoyed Mary Smith’s art, the style intrigued me, and I appreciated the apparent simplicity to her paintings. However, it was upon reading her story that I really understood and found pathos in her pieces. She died penniless and exploited, unrecognised for the importance of her work. It is right that the Christian Berst gallery should be showing this exhibition. It is deserved.