| FEATURES 02 | BLACK ART UK/US |
Jarrell, Norman Lewis, Joe Outterbridge, Faith Ringgold, Betye Saar, Raymond Saunders, Andy Warhol and Charles White. ‘Witness’ also presented an interesting, if unexplored, conundrum about the delineation between civil rights and Black Power. For example, both ‘Witness’ and ‘Soul of a Nation’ use a painting by the late Barkley L Hendricks on their respective catalogue covers.
Significantly, however, ‘Witness’ was not a black survey exhibition. It included works by a significant number of white American and mainly male artists, such as Richard Avedon, Jim Dine, Robert Rauschenberg, Larry Rivers, Norman Rockwell and James Rosenquist, as well as a multiracial line-up of documentary photographers, such as Bruce Davidson, Charles Moore, Gordon Parks and Ernest C Withers. Such an approach assumes particular significance given that ‘Soul of a Nation’ uses the ‘age of Black Power’ and the work of black artists as thematic binding agents. Also, instead of presenting a chronology of events, ‘Soul of a Nation’ was concerned with ‘dif erent aesthetic strategies and debates circling around what it meant to be a black artist at the time’. Divided into 12 rooms, these strategies and debates focused on various artistic practices emerging in a number of cities, including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Such a curatorial armature appears useful as a way of defining what the curators considered to be characteristic narratives of the period, but problems arise when condensing over 70 artists and many more artworks from a 30-year period.
Although the artist group Spiral is central to ‘Soul of a Nation’s starting point, the black-and-white works of its two prominent figures, Norman Lewis and Romare Bearden, appeared cramped in a space which doubled as a general introduction to the show. This may seem like nit-picking, but Lewis’s eerily and visually ambiguous painting America the Beautiful, 1960, certainly merited more space and time, as did Bearden’s The Prevalence of Ritual: Baptism, 1964. Similarly, in another room, titled Figuring Black Power, Elizabeth Catlett’s refined double-sided carving, Black Unity, 1968, appeared oddly understated and inappropriately juxtaposed with Faith Ringgold’s bloody, graphic-style painting, American People Series #20 Die, 1967. Although produced within a year of each other they also speak to distinctly dif erent artistic traditions: whereas Catlett subverts modernist appropriation of African sculpture, Ringgold draws on a pop aesthetic. Betye Saar and David Hammons were well represented in the exhibition, compared with other artists – for instance, Joe Overstreet and Sam Gilliam were represented by one and two works respectively, which barely scratched the surface of their individual practices. Almost any one of the thematically arranged rooms, such as Improvisation and Experimentation or
Figuring Black Power, could have been the basis of an exhibition. Perhaps the legacy of recent shows such as ‘Radical Presence’ and ‘Freedom Principle’ prohibited such an approach.
‘Soul of a Nation’ is an enterprising venture. Hip title, accompanied by a Soul Jazz Records album release, artists’ tote bags and an adaptation of BBC Radio 4’s Black Panther Assata Shakur’s autobiography – cultural and commercial dots were well and truly joined up. What does another survey show of African-American art contribute to our knowledge of art history? Why include over 70 artists? Why focus on a particular 30-year period?
Newspaper coverage of ‘Soul of a Nation’ was predictably enthusiastic but equally untroubled in its almost gleeful level of ignorance about much of the work in the exhibition. The Financial Times described the show as presenting a ‘prodigious range of artistic expression’, the New Statesman considered it ‘a genuinely revelatory exhibition’, while the Telegraph declared it ‘an epic subject and without doubt one of the shows of the year’. Such backslapping and high-fiving is instructive, because it is devoid of historical and critical perspective. A significant number of artists in ‘Soul of a Nation’ have featured in other blockbuster survey exhibitions staged in the UK, such as ‘Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance’ at the Hayward Gallery in London in 1997; ‘Back to Black: Art, Cinema and the Racial Imaginary’ at the Whitechapel Gallery in London and New Art Gallery Walsall in 2005; and ‘Afro Modern: Journeys Through the Black Atlantic’ at Tate Liverpool in 2010 (Reviews AM334). Such toing and froing across the Atlantic of a relatively small selection of African-American artists’ work has become so routine that now it requires an algorithmic-type study to chart the correlation between artists, artworks and survey exhibitions. In my unscientific analysis, Bearden’s collages, The Prevalence of Ritual: Baptism and The Dove, both 1964, appeared in ‘Soul of a Nation’, ‘Afro Modern’ and ‘Back to Black’. Catlett’s Black Unity
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