Tate Modern’s landmark exhibition, Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, explores these questions and unearths the ways in which black artists responded to the rallying cries for African American pride, solidarity and autonomy from 1963 to 1983.
A selection of works by the Spiral Group – a New York–based African American artists’ collective active from 1963 to 1965 – open the show with a bang. The choice of 1963 as a starting year – the year of the Great March on Washington D.C, the ‘I have a dream speech’, and widespread violence and unrest – establishes the exhibition as avowedly political.
The political streak strikes loud and clear in the five assemblages by America’s preeminent collagist, Romare Bearden. Hanging proud opposite Norman Lewis’s rather more abstract composition Processional, 1965, which depicts the Selma Marches that took place in the spring of 1963, they speak of discordance and fracture, both in form and subject.
Roman Bearden, Pittsburgh Memory, 1964
In their works, the Spiral Group posed existential questions about their practice and the role of art, as a medium of expression for the self and for the community. They aimed to deconstruct the 'Art for art's sake' mantra.
While the group is not characterized by a coherent style, the artists were experimental in their approach, playing with photomontage and forms of modernist abstraction, which were not typically associated with African American artists at the time.
Betye Saar, Eye, 1972
Meandering on through the exhibition, visitors journey between landmark cities and dates of the Black Arts Movement. We move from the ghettos and back streets of Chicago, to the black-run galleries and studios in New York and LA. Not all the work in the exhibition is great, quite frankly some is extremely questionable, both in terms of quality and address of the issue at hand, but some is good, really good.
The vibrant paintings of the AfriCOBRA artists fall into the latter category. They are simple in form and subject and are a pleasure to look at. The high-key, or what the AfriCOBRA artists referred to as ‘coolaid’, palette draws the eye, and the abundant presence of slogans and copy makes their political message loud and clear.
Wadsworth Jarrell, Revolutionary, 1972
As the only group to devise a manifesto, their work promoted a new aesthetic – an aesthetic characterized by ‘rhythm’ and ‘shine’, which departed dramatically from the Pop and abstract styles embraced by the Spiral Group. Founded by Jeff Donaldson, the AfriCOBRA artists wanted to make art accessible to all. They focused on poster art and prints, which could be mass produced cheaply and bought by engaged but less well-off black followers.
Beyond the prints, oils and assemblages in the exhibition, there are a number of ritualistic pseudo-African sculptures, photographs, portraits of well-known black heroes, and abstract compositions including Senna Negundi's, Internal II 1977, 2015. On display in the closing room, this work is made from a pair of stretched 'flesh coloured' nylon tights, which eerily evokes a truncated spider's web.
The questions evoked are endless. When thinking of the symbolism associated with a spider's web, death trap, struggle, and supreme ruler come to mind. While Negundi's message may not be as extreme as this, the use of a 'flesh' pair of tights – once a standard western marker of femininity and professionalism – serves as a reminder that Black women did not conform to a white standard of beauty.
Emory Douglas, We Shall Survive without a doubt, 1971
Soul of a Nation magnificently spotlights an under-examined period and group of artists in American history. One of a series of recent Tate exhibitions exploring neglected or forgotten artists outside of the European art historical canon this exhibition is long overdue.
It's ambitious to say the least, and not all the big questions are answered succinctly and satisfactorily, but successfully showcases the ways black artists rallied across the USA to produce some of the most radical, politically engaging and challenging art in recent history.
|What||Art in the Age of Black Power, Tate review|
Bankside, London, SE1 9TG | MAP
|Nearest tube||Southwark (underground)|
12 Jul 17 – 22 Oct 17, 10:00 AM – 6:00 PM
|Website||Click here for more information|