“Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” at London’s Tate Modern explores the invention of a US black aesthetic and critique.
“Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” is Tate Modern’s first exhibition to focus on black artists from the United States. Art Radar takes a look at the show.
The time period chosen by the curators of “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” – between 1963 and 1983 – is characterised by multiple resistance movements which pushed an analysis and critique of racism into a public imaginary. While many of the artists included in the exhibition at Tate Modern have had solo exhibitions across the United Kingdom, “Soul of a Nation” is the first survey that traces the connections between artist’s collective activist and art work. Tate Modern’s first survey of African-American art is an ambitious feat, comprising 12 rooms, 150 works and 60 artists.
Familiar black and white footage of Dr Martin Luther King at the March on Washington greets viewers as they enter the exhibition hall on the way to a survey of the Spiral group, who met at the march. A number of Romare Bearden’s collages are displayed alongside other members of the spiral group. Bearden’s Dove and Conjure Woman (1964) offers a sketch of different forms of domestication, with the chaotic graphic cut ups distorting the distinctions between body and architecture, domestic interior and figure.
This framing of a protest as a place where artists, such as the Spiral group, meet each other, as well as the general curatorial resistance to a chronological order, sets the tone of the exhibition’s analysis of the numerous ways in which resistance and art movements inform and influence each other. Another group spotlighted are the Chicago mural painters, who painted the Wall of Respect at 43rd Street and Langley Avenue in 1967. A selection of preparatory sketches for these projects have been displayed, revealing the multiple artist styles, considerations and collective work that went into such public gestures.
The posters and literature of the two most prevalent activist organisations, Black Panther Party and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, have been displayed beside each other – a curatorial decision that seems to smooth over the real-world conflicts between the organisations. This material helps to frame the aesthetic and political subject at the centre of the survey: the construction of a nation within a nation, and the pursuit of black consciousness against the challenges of historical and cultural erasure, institutionalised racism and social exclusion.
Work by Emory Douglas, who worked as the Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party from 1967 to the 1980s, hangs close by. The work 21 August 1971, “We Shall Survive Without a Doubt” (1971), features a smiling young African-American child wearing glasses that reflect images of the young being educated – a reference to the community schools that the Black Panthers initiated across the nation.
The exhibition also strives to highlight the work of women of colour, such as Faith Ringgold whose work was rejected by both Spiral group and then later by the Black Panthers. Her striking 1967 work American People Series #20: Die depicts wounded white and black people in the middle of a fight whose cause and culprits are made deliberately unclear by the artist. The exhibition proceeds to follow the emergence and contributions of Black Feminism in art practice with a number of works by Betye Saar and Kay Brown.
In a nod to the diversity of institutional, collective, private and public agents involved in the invention and support of a black aesthetic in the United States, the exhibition also contains a few archival documents pertaining to Just Above Midtown gallery (JAM), a pioneering New York commercial gallery dedicated to supporting avant-garde Black artists and performers.
In a room entitled “Black Heroes” the curators include the work of non-black artists, presenting the viewer with a series of portraits of leading protagonists of Black American culture in the 20th century, signalling the curators’ desire to plant the question of the role of white artists in black resistance movements. In the case of Andy Warhol’s screen print of Muhammad Ali, it is not clear if the curators are critically framing these contributions as part of the problem or as helpfully amplifying the cause. With Warhol affirming black greatness exclusively in the realm of sporting feats or physical labour, the artist also reaffirms a mainstream media trope which has historically contributed to the invisibilisation of black intellectuals and artists throughout the 20th century.
It is refreshing that an exhibition so closely and clearly maps the contours of the relationship between art and politics. “Soul of a Nation” can perhaps be thought of as one of a number of exhibitions emerging in the 21st century that offer a politicised and alternative narrative of what has otherwise been labelled “conceptual art”. Other examples are Luis Camitzer’s rereading of politicised conceptual tactics across Latin America in a 2009 exhibition entitled “Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s–1980s”; the Brooklyn Museum’s 2017 exhibition “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-1985”; and South London Gallery’s current exhibition entitled “The Place is Here”, a survey of the 1980s Black British movement.
With the coherence of these exhibitions casting considerable doubt over art criticism’s ability to account for the relationship between art and politics in other settings, we might begin to wonder why there have not been more exhibitions dedicated to revealing the ways in which aesthetic practices have been informed by the politics and ideologies of white supremacy and colonialism, responsible for excluding minority artists from public institutions for so long.
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