‘Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power’

Successfully layering a broader socio-historical narrative onto a period of radical non-conformity, this is an important show now

In 1972, writer Amiri Baraka’s album, It’s Nation Time, sounded a revolutionary call towards a new theory of blackness, one of self-determination drawn beyond the parameters of national boundaries. Chanting, singing, and screaming his poetry over African drums and free jazz, Baraka (a founding member of the interdisciplinary Black Arts Movement, which emerged in New York) asked his listeners: ‘Can you imagine something other than what you see? Something Big, Big and Black. Purple yellow red and green (but Big, Big and Black).’ This idea of nationhood, both at odds with the conventions of the American Dream and opposed to a separatist ideal of ‘nation’, gives colour to Tate Modern’s first survey of African-American art, ‘Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power’. Focusing on black artists between 1963 and 1983, the exhibition accounts for art made at the intersection of the Civil Rights movement and the widespread revolutionary actions it inspired. Contemplating the show’s ambition to reflect the diversity of artistic positions taken up by these artists, it opens up a space to discuss, and even think anew, the prevailing questions around the political responsibility of art today.

emory-douglas.jpg

Emory Douglas, 21 August 1971, ‘We Shall Survive without a doubt’, 1971, newspaper, 45 x 58 cm. Courtesy: Center for the Study of Political Graphics, Culver City, USA © Emory Douglas / ARS NY; photogrpah: Emory Douglas / Art Resource, NY 

Emory Douglas, 21 August 1971, ‘We Shall Survive without a doubt’, 1971, newspaper, 45 x 58 cm. Courtesy: Center for the Study of Political Graphics, Culver City, USA © Emory Douglas / ARS NY; photogrpah: Emory Douglas / Art Resource, NY

 

Beginning with the Spiral group, 15 artists who formed in the context of the March on Washington Bridge for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, the exhibition frames a broad selection of artists who took different directions in relation to aesthetics, politics and art-making in a time of extraordinary turbulence. Centring on Romare Bearden, whose initial proposal to produce collages collaboratively was rejected by other members of the Spiral Group, the first display presents a series of collages that capture the jazz-infused angst of his beloved Harlem neighbourhood. Bearden’s bold photostats, like Dove and Conjure Woman of 1964, employ a richly graphic intermix of figures and faces, interiors and exteriors, textures and surfaces – an ode to the spirit of black modernity. Cultivating an artistic language all their own, the Spiral group’s unwillingness to surrender aesthetic considerations to political protest (some attended the March on Washington and heard Dr Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech), sets the mood for a socially-charged narrative of black art. Part of what makes this work so compelling is its entanglement with the everyday lives of ordinary people. It drew on everything from the violent presence of the Klu Klux Klan (captured in Norman Lewis’s harrowing abstractions resembling KKK ceremonies) to the restorative nature of folkloric traditions (rendered brilliantly in Bearden’s photostats that channelled supernatural myth).

andy-warhol-muhammad-ali.jpg

Andy Warhol, Muhammad Ali, 1978, synthetic polymer and silkscreen inks on canvas, 1 x 1 m. Courtesy: The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society, New York and DACS, London

Andy Warhol, Muhammad Ali, 1978, synthetic polymer and silkscreen inks on canvas, 1 x 1 m. Courtesy: The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society, New York and DACS, London

On the other side of America, a different generation of artists would begin to develop a radical formation of blackness, detached from strategies of representation. A year before Melvin Edwards would create his famous Lynch Fragments in 1963, Ronald Stokes, an unarmed member of the Nation of Islam, was shot by police in Los Angeles – his death drew Malcolm X to the city. It was during this period of intense civil unrest and police brutality that Edwards’s powerful welded steel sculptures, David Hammons’s mythic body prints and John Outterbridge’s constrained-yet-chaotic assemblages came into view. Resisting a chronological hang, ‘Soul of a Nation’ attempts an expansive reading of these diverse works, setting its sights on periodized clusters of like-minded artists. They are framed either by geography (West coast – East coast) or approach (legible figuration – abstract expressionism). Leaping from story-to-story and room-to-room, the show traces a porous timeline that outlines the rise of black power as an ideological frontier. Sometimes it seems the symbolic role of representational painting falls short of the constitutive political motivations of art making – an inherently social practice. ‘Black Heroes’, the only room that includes some non-black artists, leads with a series of portraits memorialising Black America’s hall of fame, boxer and activist Muhammad Ali’s gaze pierces through Warhol’s 1978 screenprint. It is worth noting how most of these artists (including the modernist Beauford Delaney and New York portraitist Alice Neel) aspired to represent the black community for different reasons, and some even sought to take on history painting by centring on ordinary black people. By this time, of course, the racial imaginary had emerged in other spheres of image-making, avant-garde filmmakers (such as Edward Owens and William Greaves who feature in the accompanying film programme) and video artists (like Ulysses Jenkins), had sought to represent ‘other’ formations of identity that interrogated questions of gender, myth-making and African-American experience.

betye-saar-rainbow-mojo.jpg

Betye Saar, Rainbow Mojo, 1972, acrylic on leather. Courtesy: the artist and Roberts & Tilton, Los Angeles © Betye Saar

Betye Saar, Rainbow Mojo, 1972, acrylic on leather. Courtesy: the artist and Roberts & Tilton, Los Angeles © Betye Saar

The interdisciplinary nature of new media seems distant from any narrative of black art composed almost exclusively of objects. One room centred on ‘Los Angeles Assemblage’ draws together a group of artist who used strange and desperate fragments of material, vernacular, and popular culture to creat work of social critique. A witness to the Watts Rebellion of 1965, Noah Purifoy gathered materials from the streets to craft objects that recalled traditional African sculpture, while Betye Saar’s objects fused African and native-American religious practices with the racist symbolism of popular culture. From the perspective of comparative modernities, this might have been an interesting opportunity to introduce the parallel movement of black British art (Guyana-born British artist Frank Bowling was based in New York at the time), whose work also called upon similar notions of pan-Africanism and diaspora, or more relevant still, some of the new media practices, literary and musical experiments informing black radical consciousness. Many of these LA-based works were infused with a non-Western spirituality that spoke to the transcendence of black life through time and space: Saar (the subject of a single room) had meditated on questions of cosmology and astrology, inviting viewers to participate in leaving spiritual offerings at the foot of the work; Senga Nengudi performed African spirituals under a freeway, dressing concrete pillars in different pantyhose to represent male and female characters. Somehow, these speculative and ambiguous expressions of the black spirit seem to evade the narrative of ‘political’ art that clings to formal objects (the stunning abstract art of the early ’70s), or democratic art (articulated by figurative movements such as Chicago artists collective, AfriCOBRA).

barkley-hendricks-icon-for-my-man-superman-superman-never-saved-any-black-people-bobby-seale.jpg

Barkley L. Hendricks, Icon for My Man Superman (Superman Never Saved any Black People - Bobby Searle), 1969, oil, acrylic and aluminium leaf on linen canvas, 1.5 x 1.2 m. Courtesy: the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York © Barkley L. Hendricks 

Barkley L. Hendricks, Icon for My Man Superman (Superman Never Saved any Black People - Bobby Searle), 1969, oil, acrylic and aluminium leaf on linen canvas, 1.5 x 1.2 m. Courtesy: the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York © Barkley L. Hendricks

 

Walking through ‘Soul of a Nation’ one is able to read, rather than sense, the influence of the wider cultural landscape of the Civil Rights era: John Coltrane’s free jazz in the abstract expressions of New York painters; Amiri Baraka’s poetic visions echoing in the Organization of Black American Culture’s feel-good murals; Marvin Gaye’s prophetic lyrics pulsating through Barkley L. Hendricks' achingly cool 1974 painting, What’s Going On. Despite its broad and all-together brilliant inclusion of artistic voices spanning the time, the exhibition seems to lack the musicality that once seemed to bridge aesthetics and politics. One of the most vital ideas to emerge from the exhibition chases the ongoing discussion around questions of abstraction and figuration, forms that would seem to promote opposing political projects. In rooms dedicated to ‘East Coast Abstraction’ and the subject of ‘Improvisation and Experimentation’, the exhibition elegantly revives critical histories of black non-figurative art. Though many artists refused to adopt shared positions on the subject, some critics claimed abstraction could not connect to black lives, while other arguments spoke to the incapacity of the black body to signify universal meaning.

lorraine-ogrady.jpg

 Lorraine O'Grady, Art Is (Girlfriends Times Two), 1983/2009, c-type print. Courtesy: the artist and Alexander Gray Associates, New York © Lorraine O'Grady

 Lorraine O'Grady, Art Is (Girlfriends Times Two), 1983/2009, c-type print. Courtesy: the artist and Alexander Gray Associates, New York © Lorraine O'Grady

The exhibition ends with a focus on the New York gallery Just Above Midtown (JAM), which had opened in response to the dearth of commercial representation for black artists and their relative invisibility within institutions at the time. The advanced programming of JAM’s founder Linda Goode Bryant (former Director of Education at The Studio Museum in Harlem) set the black-owned gallery down a fascinating path forged by a unique commitment to selling innovative and non-figurative art by black artists, including abstract expressionist painter Norman Lewis and conceptual artist Lorraine O’Grady. Redefining itself with every project, JAM resisted looking at art through a sociological lens, presenting everything from performance and concerts to presentations of politically motivated work of artist such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg alongside black artists. Pointing to the gallery as an open-ended platform, the experimentation of new forms in ‘Soul of a Nation’ brings an unexpected end to a stately exhibition of considerable breadth. While it sometimes seems as though the fear of overlooking ‘vital’ works of canonical art would weigh heavy on the impending historicization of the exhibition itself, the show successfully confronts the inevitable challenge of imposing a broader socio-historical narrative onto a period of radical non-conformity. Even if the aesthetic and political motivations do not always converge, we may still look to how black art has become inseparable from the broader moment of political inflection, but we should also look beyond what we see.

‘Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power’ is on view at Tate Modern until 22 October.

Main image: Romare Bearden, Pittsburgh Memory, 1964, mixed media collage and graphite on board, 22 x 30 cm. Courtesy: © Romare Bearden Foundation / DACS, London / VAGA, New York 2017

Osei Bonsu is a curator and writer based in London, UK, and Paris, France and a contributing editor of frieze. He is the curator of the 10th Satellites Programme, an annual commissioning programme supported by Jeu de Paume, Paris, and CAPC Bordeaux, France and the commissioner of a forthcoming project by Dineo Seshee Bopape that will be shown at Collective Gallery, Edinburgh, UK, and BALTIC, Gateshead, UK, in January 2018.

Most Read

In further news: Glasgow School of Art to be rebuilt; Philadelphia Museum of Art gets a Frank Gehry-designed restaurant
Highlights from Condo New York 2018 and Commonwealth and Council at 47 Canal: the summer shows to see
Knussen’s music laid out each component as ‘precarious, vulnerable, exposed’ – and his conducting similarly worked from...
Nods to the game in World Cup celebrations show how dance has gone viral – but unwittingly instrumentalized for...
‘You can’t reason with him but you can ridicule him’ – lightweight as it is, Trump Baby is a win for art as a...
Anderson and partner Juman Malouf are sorting through the treasures of the celebrated Kunsthistorisches Museum for...
From Capote to Basquiat, the pop artist’s glittering ‘visual diary’ of the last years of his life is seen for the first...
‘When I opened Monika Sprüth Galerie, only very few German gallerists represented women artists’
Can a ragtag cluster of artists, curators and critics really push back against our ‘bare’ art world?
In further news: German government buys Giambologna at the eleventh hour; LACMA’s new expansion delayed
Gucci and Frieze present film number two in the Second Summer of Love series, focusing on the history of acid house
Judges described the gallery’s GBP£20 million redevelopment by Jamie Fobert Architects as ‘deeply intelligent’ and a ‘...
Is the lack of social mobility in the arts due to a self-congratulatory conviction that the sector represents the...
The controversial intellectual suggests art would be better done at home – she should be careful what she wishes for
Previously unheard music on Both Directions At Once includes blues as imposing as the saxophonist would ever record
In further news: Macron reconsiders artist residencies; British Council accused of censorship; V&A to host largest...
In our devotion to computation and its predictive capabilities are we rushing blindly towards our own demise?
Arts subjects are increasingly marginalized in the UK curriculum – but the controversial intellectual suggests art is...
An exhibition of performances at Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw, unfolds the rituals of sexual encounters
An art historian explains what the Carters’s takeover of the Paris museum says about art, race and power
Artist Andrea Fraser’s 2016 in Museums, Money and Politics lifts the lid on US museum board members and...
The Ruhrtriennale arts festival disinvited the Scottish hip-hop trio for their pro-Palestinian politics, then u-turned
The Baltimore’s director on why correcting the art historical canon is not only right but urgent for museums to remain...
Serpentine swimmers complain about Christo’s floating pyramid; and Hermitage’s psychic cat is a World Cup oracle: the...
The largest mural in Europe by the artist has been hidden for 30 years in an old storage depot – until now
Alumni Martin Boyce, Karla Black, Duncan Campbell and Ciara Phillips on the past and future of Charles Rennie...
In further news: po-mo architecture in the UK gets heritage status; Kassel to buy Olu Oguibe’s monument to refugees
The frieze columnist's first novel is an homage to, and embodiment of, the late, great Kathy Acker
60 years after the celebrated Brutalist architect fell foul of local authorities, a Berlin Unité d’Habitation apartment...
The British artist and Turner Prize winner is taking on the gun advocacy group at a time of renewed debate around arms...
The central thrust of the exhibition positions Sicily as the fulcrum of geopolitical conflicts over migration, trade,...
The Carters’s museum takeover powers through art history’s greatest hits – with a serious message about how the canon...
The 20-metre-high Mastaba finally realizes the artist and his late wife Jeanne-Claude’s design
‘What is being exhibited at Manifesta, above all, is Palermo itself’
With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
In the age of Brexit, why Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to return the ‘stolen’ Parthenon marbles has never been...
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’
US true crime series Unsolved takes two formative pop cultural events to explore their concealed human stories and...

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018