Exhibition Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power Tate Modern, London Until 22 October Review by Herbert Wright
‘It’s a terrible thing for an entire people to surrender to the notion that one ninth of its population is beneath them,’ said the brilliant writer James Baldwin in 1965.
This quote about African Americans runs in a video loop by the entrance to the Soul of a Nation show, along with clips from Martin Luther King and the activists Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and Angela Davis. The racism Baldwin described applied in art, too, long held as a narrative written by white men about white men. But 1963 marked a step forward with a New York art show staged by 15 black artists who called themselves Spiral. This is the starting point for the Tate’s powerful, overdue show about African-American art, co-curated by Zoe Whitley and Mark Godfrey.
It was the year of the march on Washington, 1936, when Martin Luther King made his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. Spiral artists made a subject of this tide of people power, as well as the Klu Klux Klan, brilliantly evoking organised movement in stark black-and-white canvases. Activist politics and anger runs deep and strong in the 20 years of art that the show spans, but there are other threads, such as the urban condition of black people. Montages by Spiral co-founder Romare Bearden show black characters in the grey northern cities they migrated to, their cowed, tired faces constituted from cut-up photos.
The next room is called Art on the Streets, and we begin to see those urban characters asserting themselves. On Chicago’s South Side, OBAC (the Organisation of Black American Culture) celebrated black public figures in the Sixties in a mural called the Wall of Respect. New York’s Smokehouse Associates — four artists, one white — were totally different, painting Harlem walls at the decade’s end with bold, colourful geometric motifs. If anything, they relate to the work of the cerebral East
Coast abstract artists shown in a later room, such as William T Williams. Abstract artists were accused of not engaging with the black struggle, although Jack Whitten’s large black triangle piece (1970) is titled Homage to Malcolm and its acrylic paint was ridged by an Afro comb.
Street art has been a crucial medium for black American art, and Soul of a Nation passes over it far too quickly. Tied to the emergence of hip-hop music in the Bronx, ‘crews’ started ‘tagging’ trains and walls in the Seventies. We just don’t see the ensuing rise of stylised graffiti with its explosion of letterings, cartoon characters, agitprop and visions that would go global and which permeates the urban landscape today. Arguably, it is the biggest creative visual phenomenon that African-American art has spawned. In particular, where is New York’s JeanMichel Basquiat, whose SAMO tags in the Seventies were the starting point for his colourful post-punk expressionism that hit the gallery scene in 1981?
But back in the Art on the Streets room, we do see the first radical, confrontational political graphics — a sizzling feast of artwork by San Francisco-based Emory Douglas made in 1967–71 for the Black Panther newspaper. He realised a picture could convey and provoke revolutionary fervour quicker than any words, and his work hit hard. In the following rooms, we see artists nailing their colours to the cause.
Fred Hampton’s Door 2 (1975) by Dana C Chandler recreates the bright green door, riddled with holes, of the Illinois chairman of the Black Panthers, just 21 years old when killed in a police raid. David Hammons’ Injustice Case (1970) shows Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale bound and gagged while on trial in Chicago. In that city, artists belonging to the collective AfriCOBRA were appropriating the colours of psychedelia to celebrate black revolutionaries on canvas. Wadsworth Jarrell stands out — his Revolutionary (1972), depicting Angela Davis at the time she was in prison, and Black Prince (1971) depicting Malcolm X, are extraordinary. Their effect is like Dalí’s 1951 Raphaelesque Head Exploding, but the distinct exploding elements of Jarrell’s portraits are letters spelling out their messages.
As Time magazine reported in 1970 (and you can read the article in the show), ‘whitey’ was in another world. It detailed the number of black artists in great American collections: Metropolitan Museum, New York 10 of 1,200; National Collection of Fine Arts 11 of 1,599; MoMA 12 of 450; The Whitney 15 of 1,100. Institutions began to respond with shows of black art, sometimes cack-handedly, excluding black curators (which the Tate does not) and generating protest, including from white artist Alice Neel.
Meanwhile, new black styles and attitudes were emerging. Does anything in Soul of a Nation reflect the newly confident, suave-made-famous in the 1971 film Shaft, which revolutionised the representation of the black man as hero? Well, Barkley Hendricks can claim credit for shaping it. His self-portrait Icon for
1 Barkley Hendricks, Icon For My Man Superman (Superman Never Saved Any Black People — Bobby Seale)
2 Al Fennar, Rhythmic Cigarettes, Greenwich Village (1964)
3 Romare Bearden — Pittsburgh Memory (1964)
4 Betye Saar’s Rainbow Mojo (1972) and Eshu (The Trickster) (1971) as installed at Tate Modern’s in Soul of a Nation
5 Wadsworth Jarrell, Revolutionary (1972)
My Man Superman (Superman Never Saved any Black People — Bobby Seale), which also brands the show, predates the film by two years.
He presents a too-cool-to-try character wearing a Superman T-shirt — and no underpants. He goes further in his Brilliantly Endowed (1977) self-portrait, where he’s wearing nothing between his glasses and socks except bracelets. There’s even an echo of the portrayal of women in the blaxploitation film genre Shaft spawned, in Hendricks’ What’s Going On (1974), where a naked woman stands with four dudes in white suits. Hendricks nevertheless emerges as one of the giants of the show. His precise technique and chilled-funk aesthetic nail the time and the characters.
Things had certainly moved on up since the Sixties, but one room illuminates the past neighbourhood like no other. It’s called Black Light, celebrating black photography, mainly in Harlem, and it is outstanding. We see the sheer depth and range of Roy DeCarava’s work, including film-noirish portraits, streetlife and urbanist observations like the trace of demolished stairs on a wall. Adger Cowans’ sensual, shadowy, Nude (1970) and his overhead sidewalk shot Shadows, New York (1961) are moody masterpieces. The pregnant rooftop figure in the rain in Beuford Smith’s Woman Bathing/ Madonna, New York (1967) celebrates
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