Covering the period 1963 to 1983 the choice of theme for ‘Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power’ is a timely move by the Tate curators Zoe Whitley and Mark Godfrey, bringing together a disparate selection of work around the theme of artistic responses to the American civil rights and Black Power movements, and the specific experiences of artists as activists for or from the African-American community. A repeating subject of the show is the artists’ struggle to gain recognition from US museums and galleries, and many of the artists have been habitually ignored in the Tate’s own surveys of art of the period.
The exhibition opens with The Circle Group of artists who began to organise in New York in 1963 specifically in response to the march on Washington with the agenda of mobilising art as activism for the civil rights movement. Beginning the exhibition this way, the curators side step a number of issues, not least the whitewashing of American art history from the 1960s and of the earlier Harlem Renaissance. This omission of the Harlem Renaissance artists (Archibald Motley is usefully represented by a 1960s work) is curious, as in the UK, Kobena Mercer and Isaac Julien have had a decisive role in promoting awareness of the moment for contemporary audiences.
Norman Lewis, one of the organisers of The Circle Group, features in the first room of the exhibition. Lewis had worked through the preceding decade as an Abstract Expressionist associated with Mark Rothko and Robert Motherwell. The decision to direct his work towards the formation of a Black aesthetic allied to the promotion of a black cultural consciousness, therefore, was a courageous one, marking a split with the institutional high-modernism then dominant. Lewis’ ‘America the Beautiful’ (1960) shows the artist pushing at our willingness to read the flickering white paint strokes that dance across the black surface as anything other than the hoods of Clansmen. Lewis’ work is a riposte to the contemporary argument that a politically engaged practice will decline into sloganeering kitsch.
The exhibition provides a decent quantity of contextual material to fill in the history of the different activist groups. There are rooms dedicated to ‘The Wall of Respect’, a 1967 mural project in Chicago that inspired a cycle of similar cultural empowerment projects and the work of the Kamoinge Workshop group of photographers who opened their own gallery in Harlem in 1964. This provides a vital window on the everyday lives of the artists and the community out of which the gallery emerged. As the chronology of the show unfolds through the triumphs and tragedies of the later 1960s, it is unavoidable to not remark that the main institutions of the US art world come out looking rather shabby for their indifference - or active racism – to the artists. Elizabeth Catlett’s powerful mahogany carving ‘Black Unity’ (1968) with its clenched fist provides the show with a monument for the Black Power movement. Catlett made the piece while in effective exile in Mexico after years of rejection in the US on account of being black. Despite Catlett’s rejection of what she viewed as a white male international style, her work demands now to be given the same status as her contemporaries. Faith Ringold’s ‘American People Series #20: Die’ (1967) shows black and white figures thrown about in the chaotic violence of a riot. Ringold bears direct witness to the tumult of the riots in Harlem that introduces a more militant narrative to the exhibition and gives us an expression of the artist’s raw rage.
In New York, the exclusion of black artists from key exhibitions at MoMA, Whitney and The Met led to protests and direct action. One of the strongest rooms in the show is given to a history of the ‘Three Graphic Artists’ exhibition held at LACMA in 1971. As described by the curators’ texts ‘Three Graphic Artists’ only came about due to the activism of a group of LACMA’s art handlers. Viewing David Hammons ‘Injustice Case’ (1970) is extraordinary. The centre of the work is the impression of the artist’s own body taking the place of Bobby Seale, the co-founder of the Black Panther Party, who is shown bound and gagged as he was in court during the notorious ‘Chicago 8’ trial. This figure is framed by the US flag, an appropriation that remains controversial. The work retains its power to shock and as a warning of the extent to which the state was willing to go to silence and criminalise the Black Power movement.
The questioning of the definition of a Black Art aesthetic runs through the show but is not resolved. There is an excellent room bringing together abstract paintings by Virginia Jaramillo, Jack Whitten, Sam Gilliam and Frank Bowling. With all these artists one is left with the feeling of regret at the opportunity missed by them not having the support and exposure their work deserves alongside their contemporaries irrespective of their background. Bowling’s ‘Texas Louise’ (1971) is a sublime work, one of the highlights of the exhibition, despite the encroachment of a Martin Puryear sculpture by a poor piece of positioning by the curators. Betye Saar is given a dedicated room in an effort to recreate her more mystically invested approach to conjuring an autonomous method of display, an attempt to create a space for the artist resistant to a framework of institutional racism that anticipates the rise of the artist-curator. Saar’s work from the 1970s, along with that by Noah Purifoy and John Outterbridge, also preceded the debates over primitivism and the stereotypical ethnocentric bias of the art historical narrative that came to the fore in the 1980s. Unfortunately the self-imposed cutoff date of 1983 followed by the curators prevents placing the artists in relation to this essential contemporary dialogue.
Fortunately ‘Soul of a Nation’ coincided with the exhibition of British Black art from the 1980s ‘This is the Place’, making it possible to chart how the strategies of autonomy and the manifesto statements of Circle, Saar and the other US groups were developed further in the UK by Eddie Chambers and Maud Sulter. Bowling provides another bridge between the black American and British stories, though in the 1970s he was denied inclusion in institutional exhibitions solely on the qualification of his race. His particular experience runs through the work, putting it at odds with the rubric of this show. ‘Middle Passage’ (1970) is a vivid piece of high Pop Art montage and Bowling’s parity with the likes of Robert Rauschenberg and Richard Hamilton needs to be boldly asserted (apparently a Tate retrospective is in the works). Barkley L. Hendricks is shown alongside Andy Warhol and Alice Neel but even this consolation prize arrived late as the artist died just a few months before the show opened. Hendricks is one of the revelations of the show, by choosing to embrace a style of painting based on the classical ideals of the Western Art tradition he wrong footed the critics. The self-portrait ‘Brilliantly Endowed’ (1977) is the artist’s hilarious riposte to a sarcastic review by Hilton Kramer in which a back handed compliment turned into a ridiculous racist stereotype. In her catalogue essay Whitley links Hendricks to Whistler and it is a useful connection, both artists were outsiders who embraced an academic style in an effort to fit in but were victims of critics.
Hendricks and Bowling attempted to create a synthesis of the subjects and preoccupations of the civil rights and Black Power movements in a strive towards empowerment through their specific experiences as artists. In this respect, despite the historical guillotine imposed by the show, one can trace a forward trajectory that places the artists in ‘Soul of a Nation’ on the ascendancy. Bowling’s experience of diaspora and the embracing of the Pop Art lexicon has become a prominent theme, while Hendricks’ referencing of black music and evocation of a ‘slick’ aspirational and glamourised lifestyle in ‘What’s Going On?’ (1974) is a compendium of the signifiers of black American culture that have been embraced and promoted internationally by the US culture industry.