Review: Soul of a Nation

Caliban’s Revenge finds the current exhibition at Tate Modern a great place for searching for answers in a time of crisis and opportunity.

Black Panthers exhibition
Power & Equality, a modern work by Shepard Fairey inspired by the Panthers | © Steve Snodgrass/Flickr

In 1968, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King was assassinated. In the immediate aftermath, a wave of riots broke across America. Known as the Holy Week Uprising, this was a largely spontaneous outpouring of rage and sorrow. Far from the Movement collapsing, it marched forward with renewed fury and determination. To paraphrase Stokely Carmichael, what the crowds had started saying was “Black Power”, and they were to keep on saying it. In the midst of this ferment, black artists and activists searched for new answers to the questions that cut across the African-American experience. With great success, Soul of a Nation seizes upon these questions and frames its curation around them.

 The exhibition is primarily organised around specific groups of artists who came together with the express purpose of tackling these questions. A notable example is Spiral, who debated the role of artists within and in relation to the Civil Rights Movement between 1963 and 1965. The focus of Soul of a Nation is work generated in the Black Power era of the late 1960s, but these earlier contributions establish a base from which to understand the pre-existing consensus among black artists about what “conscious” black art should be. That isn’t to say the works of key luminaries like Romare Bearden read as conservative in comparison to some of the later pieces on display. On the contrary, Bearden’s jagged photo-collages, at once reconfiguring and documenting scenes of everyday life in the ghetto, push at the aesthetic boundaries of the era. Likewise, Norman Lewis’ abstractions of figurative crowds, flickering white strokes gesturing at ominous, agitated masses – cross-bearing Klan rallies, the furious white mob – are not accomplishments that stand in opposition to subsequent experiments, but are previous moments in an evolving conversation.

In Soul of a Nation, these pieces help to establish the key concerns of radical black artists preceding King’s death: the rediscovery or founding of a distinct black aesthetic, the place of African-Americans in a fractured and oppressive American national identity, and –  especially in these early works – the representation of lived black experiences in a public sphere from which those experiences were being actively erased. One of the key ways in which this was challenged was through the drive to bust out of the gallery space altogether. In the words of Black Panther Party (BPP) Minister for Culture Emory Douglas, “the ghetto itself is the gallery for the revolutionary artist”. Far from striving to win wall space within the academy, agitational artists were fighting to generate a counter culture in the heart of urban black communities.

This tendency is exemplified by the Chicago mural painters, most famously by the Organization of Black American Culture. This collective painted the Wall of Respect at 43rd Street and Langley Avenue in 1967, followed later by walls of “dignity”, “truth”, and “understanding”. Studies for these projects are on display, their styles ranging across the many different individuals involved in their execution and the evolving mural aesthetic. The early work is heroic, expressionistic, and, at times, sentimental – perhaps self-consciously evocative of the Harlem Renaissance. Elsewhere, the murals explode with spiritual visions, social antagonisms and ideas, a kaleidoscope of identity and aesthetics. These artists saw themselves as serving local black communities, proactively creating change independently of the white establishment. The Smokehouse Associates painted stunning geometric and cellular abstract murals. In the words of contributor William Williams:

We were not just interested in change, but in empowering people to realise they could make change also. In a lot of cases that’s what the walls did, kind of energise the community.

If there is a single unifying theme of the work on display at this exhibition, it is this struggle to germinate a black self-consciousness capable of achieving its own liberation. This ranges from the BPP’s sensational propaganda, refiguring the aesthetic of the black street in a radical vernacular, to Barkley L. Hendricks’ gorgeous appropriation of the traditions of classical portraiture to raise charismatic icons of blackness. The aesthetics of that emerging consciousness are at their most compelling where they are confronted with the pulverising force of American national identity. The sense of the torment of the American imagination is redolent throughout the exhibition, where it is actively exposed, contested and deconstructed in ways that seem almost a cathartic revenge for the systematic shredding of the black sense of self. Most fascinating, though, is how these fragments, manifested in the detritus of consumerism or the physical articles of oppression, are reconfigured to form the material basis for a renewed, self-consciously African aesthetic, as in Melvin Edwards’ Lynch Fragments and the supernatural cultural collisions of Betye Saar.

It’s easy to see how, as the ideology underpinning ‘non-violent resistance’ was losing its influence, black nationalist ideas could gain renewed currency in this period. The logical counter to a white supremacist nationalism that brutalised and alienated African-Americans was an Afro-nationalism that could restore a sense of solidarity and selfhood to the embattled black subject. As the exhibition’s title suggests, this theme is central to the its conception of the cultural discourse of black power. And its revolutionary aspect is evocatively explored, particularly in the work of the AfriCOBRA collective, whose explicit project was, as artist Barbara Jones-Hogu puts it, to present to a black audience “positive images … directing and motivating them with particular thoughts, attitudes”. These were conveyed through radiant, chromatic print work and portraiture of emblematic figures like Malcom X and the Panthers, but also through scenes of protest and celebration, archetypal men and women figured as the inheritors of a dislocated, but not broken, continuity with African mythology and tradition. Jones-Hogu, along with others in the collective, had also been a contributor to the Organization of Black American Culture’s Wall of Respect. This connection to the mythologised past, in common with other ideologies of national liberation, is seen as the foundation of an as yet unrealised future.

Conversely, the exhibition does not explore the frictions that surrounded cultural nationalism in the Black Power movement, or its limitations. Movements that were central proponents of Black Power, such as the Panthers and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, fought bitter internal battles over the question. Despite the fact that these were aesthetic disputes as much as they were strategic and political, there is no sense of this controversy in the exhibition. The revolutionary potential of black nationalism was always, and remains, dogged by the remora of reaction – the image of black oneness as expressed through the “nation” involves, as we see in the exhibition, a valorisation of the necessity and the oneness of the black family. Gender roles are subverted, but also idealised. The mother carries a rifle, but she still carries a baby. The centrality of the wholesome black family was as much a feature of the mainstream Civil Rights ideology as it was of black nationalism, and far too frequently the pivotal role of women in the struggle for liberation has been forgotten and overlooked.

A strong point of the exhibition is the way in which it highlights the work women of colour were doing despite these frustrations. Faith Ringgold was one such woman whose work was rejected by both Spiral and then later the Black Panthers, but continued undeterred. She made seminal contributions to the mural movement and through her story quilts, in addition to her massive, emblematic oils rich with the obscured and often brutal narrative of the black experience. In an interview in 2016, Ringgold described a turning point early in her career:

It’s the 1960s, all hell is breaking loose all over, and you’re painting flowers and leaves. You can’t do that. Your job is to tell your story. Your story has to come out of your life, your environment, who you are, where you come from.

This sense of urgency runs throughout the exhibition, at once the voice screaming from a burning building and that raised defiantly in song. Above all, the sense of searching for answers in a time of crisis and opportunity is the key element of the curation, and is again pressingly relevant today. Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power is a fantastic place to begin that search anew.

Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power is at Tate Modern, London, until 22 October.


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