Soul of a Nation exhibition at Tate Modern ****

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Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power

Tate Modern, 5th October 2017

I seem to have taken an age to get around to seeing Tate’s survey of African American Art through the vital twenty year period from 1963. There are a couple of weeks left to see it however should it be on your radar. It is, like the recently ended Queer British Art exhibition at Tate Britain (Queer British Art at Tate Britain review ***), an insightful overview for the uninitiated like me. Here we get a broad investigation of the Black American experience through these turbulent times and the artistic response to that experience.

It is focussed almost exclusively on the work of Black artists, with one or two exceptions (including a Warhol portrait of Muhammad Ali), and does an exemplary job in highlighting what it meant to be a Black artist in these decades of heightened Black consciousness. It groups artists from different regions, cities, collectives, exhibitions, and sometimes, movements, in order to map these responses which, on the whole, works, though perhaps makes it a little trickier for the dumb observer like yours truly to track the work of individual artists through the rooms.

For me the most interesting and effective art here was the most obviously political. The work that set out directly to highlight the impact of social and cultural change on African Americans, and specifically to attack the injustices meted out to African Americans both in the 1960s and 1970s but also stretching back through American history, was extremely affecting. Contemporary art with vague political entreaties can often seem naive to me. Here the anger, particularly in the work from the 1960s, was visceral.

The curators (Mark Godfrey and Zoe Whitley, who have clearly put a lot of work in here) were, I think, keen to explore the question of whether there was a Black Art independent of the subjects. There were certainly some fine works in the exhibition which portrayed Black American cultural and political “heroes” but I am not sure I understand how this necessarily related to notion of a bounded Black Art. I did however see how disagreements about this concept were debated, and it did help me in my thinking about how cultural superstructures more generally are defined and articulated. It was also interesting to see how the materials and techniques which inform contemporary art (and more specifically the increasing absence of paint) meant that the overtly political narrative seen in the works from the early 1960s became far more diffuse by the time we got to the early 1980s.

It also got me to thinking why I didn’t know any of these artists. OK so I am only a moderately interested observer/consumer, though my awareness has come on in leaps and bounds in the last couple of years. It is also fair to say that it is the job of curators in public galleries to expand the modern and contemporary art canon to our advantage, exactly what they are doing here. And, at the end of the day, it is they, and the rich who buy the works, who chose what we see. In essence if they don’t tell us, we won’t know. But to not really know any of these artists from the country which, I am loathe to admit, has dominated plastic arts in the 70 years, suggests that access to the public consciousness for many of these artists was a problem then and may still be now.

What about the works? Of course there was a fair bit of stuff here which didn’t do much for me. But there was other stuff which really did work on many levels. For what it is worth (precisely nothing) here are my highlights.

  • In Room 1 the work of the Spiral group active through 1963 to 1965 in New York is represented. They chose only to work in black and white in their only exhibition which lends real drama to, for example, Norman’s Lewis two near abstract oil canvases, Procession (which is is a theme he has explored in later works), and Alabama, which is a genuinely chilling depiction of Klansmen at night. The collages of Romare Bearden, a co-founder of Spiral, are nearly as affecting in a different way. This group sought direct engagement with the Civil Rights movement and created a powerful legacy for the next generation of African American artists.
  • Room 6 contains works by Charles White, David Hammons and Timothy Washington from their 1971 exhibition, Three Graphic Artists. White’s harrowing but dignified drawings, including his Wanted series of posters, detail the bloody history of slavery. Hammons’s body paintings were a revelation to me, in terms of the technique and their power. Injustice Case, which shows Bobby Seale, the founder of the Black Panthers, bound and gagged at his trial, will punch yo right in the gut. Hammons’s later engaging conceptual work is also featured at the end of the exhibition. Timothy Washington’s One Nation Under God engraving has multiple layers of meaning. This, along with the Spiral room, was the most compelling for me.
  • I think I could safely ignore the abstract artists in room 7 with the exception of Frank Bowling (born in Guyana) whose large canvas here, (sorry I lost my note of the title – note to self: perhaps this would be a reason to use a phone), refers to his birthplace and whose meditative canvas Texas Louise graces Room 10,
  • In Room 8 there is a wall of black and white photographs from Roy DeCarava which I guarantee will draw you in. The exposures are generally very dark which forces you to look very closely, especially at the portraits, whether they be everyday folk or famous Black musicians. On that note I also found myself fascinated by an OpArt portrait, maybe in Room 2, not because it was an especially powerful painting but because it was the divine Miles Davies.
  • Room 9 is comprised of Black Heroes and my eye was immediately drawn to the ironic self portraits of Barkley Hendricks, one as Superman, its sub-title Superman Never Saved Any Black People referencing a courtroom quote from Bobby Seale, and one nude responding to a critic’s comic (I won’t spoil the joke). His portrait What’s Going On comprised of four men in early 70s high camp white (mocking our expectations of “cool”) and one nude woman in acrylic and oil, refers to the classic Marvin Gaye song which was penned in response to the brutality of the response by police to the Berkeley protest through the 1960’s.
  • Room 10, Improvisation and Experimentation, shows just how diffuse art practice became in the 1970s and into the 1980’s and it is hard to see how this reflects any notion of a shared Black aesthetic. However the screen of barbed wire and chains which makes up Melvin Edwards’s Curtain screams incarceration even if the artist apparently claimed an entirely abstract intent.
  • Room 11 is devoted to the assemblages of Bettye Saar, now in her 90s. Her work also appears in Room 4 I think. The ideas and materials she employs are intriguing and create a link, which others have productively employed, back to African art.

 

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