Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Back Power is an expansive landmark exhibition at Tate Modern examining what it was to black and, in particular a black artist in the height of the Civil Rights Movement in America. Although that period is often referred to by mass media as ‘the swinging sixties’ and all peace and love, it was far from that for a huge segment of the oppressed population who just hoped for integration.

‘American People Series #20: Die’ by Faith Ringgold, 1967

It was a time when there was a huge rallying call from Black America to bring about an end to segregation. In its wake also emerged more militant calls for Black Power: a defiant anti-establishment move for African American pride, autonomy and solidarity, drawing inspiration from newly independent African nations.

‘Black Unity’ sculpture by Elizabeth Catlett, 1968

The powerful and compelling exhibition on at Tate Modern til October, explores how these issues played out among and beyond African American artists between 1963 and 1983. At a time when race and identity became major issues in music, sport and literature, ‘Black Art’ was being defined and debated across the country in vibrant paintings, photographs, prints and sculptures.

‘Muhammad Ali’ by Andy Warhol, 1978

The show features more than 150 works from over 60 artists, with many shown in the UK for the first time. Soul of a Nation is a timely opportunity to see how American cultural identity was re-shaped at a time of social unrest and political struggle.

‘Black Children Keep Your Spirits Free’ by Carolyn Lawrence, 1972

The show begins in 1963 with the formation of the Spiral Group, a New York–based collective. They questioned how Black artists should relate to American society, with key figures like Romare Bearden and Norman Lewis responding to current events in their photomontages and abstract paintings.

‘Pittsburgh Memory’ by Romare Bearden, 1964

 

Artists used this time to consider the locations and audiences for their art – from local murals to nationally circulated posters and newspapers – with many turning away from seeking mainstream gallery approval to show artwork in their own communities through Black-owned galleries and artist-curated shows.

‘Did The Bear Sit Under the Tree’ by Benny Andrews, 1969

The exhibition uses archive photographs and documentary material to illustrate the mural movement, with the stunning ‘Wall of Respect’, a mural first painted in 1967 by the Visual Arts Workshop of the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC) in South Chicago.

‘Carousel Change’ by Sam Gilliam, 1970

The posters and newspapers focus primarily on the captivating activist work of the Black Panther Party’s Culture Minister Emory Douglas, who declared “the ghetto itself is the gallery”.

‘We Shall Survive Without A Doubt’: back cover of the Black Panther newspaper, August 1971, by Emory Douglas

The call for Black Power initiated powerful and inspiring images of political leaders such as Malcolm X and Angela Davis and even works of radical abstraction invoking Martin Luther King’s legacy. Soul of a Nation showcases this debate between figuration and abstraction, from Faith Ringgold’s American People Series #20: Die 1967 and Wadsworth Jarrell’s Black Prince 1971 to Frank Bowling’s Texas Louise 1971 and Sam Gilliam’s April 4 1969. A highlight is Homage to Malcolm 1970 by Jack Whitten, who was awarded the National Medal of Arts by Barack Obama in 2015, which is on public display for the very first time.

‘Revolutionary’; a portrait of Angela Davis by Wadsworth Jarrell, 1972

Away from New York artists across the Unites States engaged in the Black Art debate. In Chicago in the late 1960s, Jeff Donaldson, Wadsworth Jarrell, Jae Jarrell, Barbara Jones-Hogu, Nelson Stevens and Gerald Williams, formed AfriCOBRA (the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists), the only group to devise a manifesto for Black Art during this period. Their striking works offered a unique aesthetic combining bright colours, texts and images in dynamic ways.

‘Texas Louise’ by Frank Bowling, 1971

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles the Watts Rebellion of 1965 had a direct impact on the art being produced there, with many artists calling attention to the politics of a divided city. Constructions by Noah Purifoy made use of debris found on the streets of Watts, while the work of Charles White and David Hammons shows the development of a distinct approach to the figure while responding to current events such as the restraining of Bobby Seale at his trial. This includes brilliant self-portraits of 1970s ironist Barkley Hendricks who sadly died this year, too soon to bask in this exhibition’s glory.

‘Icon For My Man Superman (Superman Never Saved Any Black People-Bobby Seale)’ by Barkley Hendricks, 1969

The exhibition also spotlights Just Above Midtown gallery (JAM), a pioneering New York commercial gallery that displayed the work of avant-garde Black artists and whose legendary programme spanned innovative approaches to sculpture and performance, using materials as unexpected as Black hair and tights.

‘Rainbow Mojo’ by Betye Saar, 1972

Further themes investigated in the exhibition include the emergence of Black Feminism through the revelatory work of nonagenarian artist Betye Saar. Saar, now aged 90, receives an entire room dedicated to her work in this exhibition with the magical Eye and sardonic I’ve Got Rhythm – a metronome (with a tiny blackened corpse attached to its needle – compelling, angry and sorrowful pieces that sum up the mood of the show.

‘Eye’ by Betye Saar, 1972

Soul of a Nation is an astounding show that puts the civil rights battles firmly on the map with a brutally honest tale. Although there are moments where the show feels disjointed and tentative – where rooms seem to be fillers rather than a continuation of the tale – this is show that takes you on a roller coaster of emotions. Moments of melancholy, can be swiftly replaced with zestful, ebullience.

‘Art Is (Girlfriends Times Two)’ by Lorraine O’Grady, 1983/2009

As much as you can revel in its sprawling wonder, it is hard to think the tragedy, suffering and violence that permeates through every part of this show is still a factor for today’s generation. One look at the recent Black Lives Matter campaigns bears witness to this, there is still work to be done…

‘Couple Walking’ by Roy DeCarava, 1979

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

Soul Of A Nation: Art In The Age Of Black Power
5.0Overall Score