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(c) Estate of Barkley L. Hendricks. Courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. Superman S-Shield (c) and trademark DC Comics. Used with permission​

Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power at Tate Modern

12 July 2017 Will Rathbone

The Tate Modern’s newest exhibition looks at artwork made by Black artists during the period 1963-83 – the height of the Civil Rights Movement and beyond. The exhibition is divided by different regions of America, and by different responses to the multitude of questions posed by the burgeoning Civil Rights movement. Where should Black artists be exhibiting? Who should they be making art for? What does ‘Black Art’ look like, and how should an artist respond to the enormous social upheaval of the time?

Soul of a Nation is an important exhibition. You feel it as soon as you step through the entrance, and in every artwork along the way. There is a power – a charged, fierce significance – that each work emits. They hold your gaze, they force you to confront uncomfortable truths about America’s recent history and they resonate today with striking clarity.


Elizabeth Catlett - Black Unity © Catlett Mora Family Trust / DACS, London / VAGA, NY 2017
 
Just outside the gallery, five televisions play excerpts from speeches delivered by key Black American leaders of the time – Martin Luther King, Jr; Malcolm X; James Baldwin; Stokely Carmichael; Angela Davis. These speeches give the exhibition context, and demonstrate different approaches to the Civil Rights movement, from Martin Luther King, Jr’s peaceful protests and marches to Malcolm X’s more aggressive stance.
 
The exhibition begins in earnest with a look at the Spiral Group – a New York-based collective who questioned where Black artists sat in relation to wider American society. Norman Lewis’ abstract oil painting America the Beautiful faces you – white brush strokes on a black background gradually revealing a Klan ride. The theme of America’s face-value ideals of freedom and beauty being constantly underpinned by sinister and ugly racial violence occurs throughout the exhibition. David Hammons’ Injustice Case – where a depiction of the gagging of activist Bobby Seale during his own trial is bordered by a cut out US flag – and the hat worn by Richard Nixon in Kay Brown’s The Devil and His Game, a disturbing collage depicting Nixon playing chess against King with Black children as pawns, are just two examples.


Benny Andrews - Did The Bear Sit Under a Tree? © Estate of Benny Andrews / DACS, London / VAGA, NY 2017

Just as with the aforementioned Bobby Seale, there are many movements, artists and icons included in this exhibition that are scarcely known to the wider public. Discovering writer Amiri Baraka, photographer Roy DeCarava and activists such as Fred Hampton, who was shot dead by police whilst in bed at night, is enlightening and moving. It feels like the exhibition is the tip of the iceberg in terms of Black figureheads who have yet to receive wider recognition. The Tate Modern’s drive to present works by a wider range of diverse artists is to be applauded – overdue perhaps, but never too late.
 
The battle for female Black artists is given equal billing – their struggle for acceptance was fought on two counts: race and gender. Faith Ringgold’s ‘super-real’ oil painting American People Series #20: Die was both a response to the wider Civil Rights Movement and her own rejection from the Spiral Group (whose 15-strong membership only included one woman, Alma Thomas). The painting is well positioned opposite Elizabeth Catlett’s mahogany sculpture Black Unity, which sees two female faces on one side of a clenched fist – the symbol of Black Power.


Faith Ringgold - American People Series #20: Die © Faith Ringgold
 
Another highlight is the room dedicated to Chicago’s ‘Wall of Respect’ and the ‘Smokehouse’ wall paintings in Harlem. These examples of urban art were a way for Black artists to bring creative freedom directly to Black communities – bypassing the restrictive art galleries of the time – and directly communicate a message of positivity, and the freedom that can be gained through art. We think of Banksy as an originator of using urban areas as galleries, but the Smokehouse Association’s abstract murals far pre-date the British artist.
 
There are so many standout artworks in Soul of a Nation. The beautiful late abstraction of William T Williams’ Nu Nile – which sees the artist bring a gorgeous, metallic quality to paint and, in his own words, “activate the medium; activate the voice” – sits in a stunning gallery toward the end. Black art had fought long and hard to escape pre-conceived notions of how it should look. In the 1970s it had found an identity, and abstraction was not considered part of this. The works in this gallery form part of a movement that now defied notions of what an established Black art had become. You could lose hours with Jack Whitten’s Asa’s Palace, Alma Thomas’ Mars Dust and Frank Bowling’s Texas Louise. Similarly, the joyful colours of Wadsworth Jarrell’s Black Prince and Revolutionary – and the AfriCOBRA movement as a whole – radiate positivity and a strength that is difficult to move away from.


Frank Bowling - Texas Louise courtesy of the Rennie Collection © Frank Bowling
 
Soul of a Nation is epitomised by its cover image: Icon for My Man Superman by Barkley Hendricks. Hendricks’ paintings stare right back at you – his figures embody an assuredness, a confidence, which every single artwork in the exhibition shares. Hendricks describes this defiant nature as an everyday resistance, and the overwhelming notion of actually having to defend yourself every day stays with you. That defiance – mixed with joy, creativity, skill, anger and optimism – is palpable throughout the gallery. It’s an atmosphere that is unique, and will surely merit repeat viewings of this incredible exhibition. 
 
Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power runs at Tate Modern till October 22. Tickets are £16.50.
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