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

Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power
by Mark Godfrey, Zoé Whitley, Curators

de Young Museum, San Francisco, 9 Nov. 2019-8 Mar. 2020
Exhibition organized by Tate Modern
Catalog by D.A.P./Tate; 2017, 256 pp., ISBN: 978-1942884170.

Reviewed by
Amy Ione
February 2020

In balancing a range of art practices with socio-political realities, Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983 effectively demonstrates that there isn’t a Black art per se but rather a Black experience that informs what, how, and where Black artists present and re-present. The project also superbly presents the rich contributions of African American artists are an important and integral part of American Art, despite their often being underrepresented in art histories. While the catalog expands one’s understanding of the exhibition immeasurably, I was glad to have the opportunity to engage with the actual size works so as to optimally experience the interweaving of artistic insights and materials with concepts like Black Power, Black Pride and the array of social realities that informed the work (e.g., the Watts riots) [1]. Still, the catalog is invaluable. Reading curator Mark Godfrey’s essay on Black abstraction in the publication before visiting the exhibition primed me to see the socio-political elements through the eyes of individual artists musing about material objects and black identify in tandem. In essence, his essay, co-curator Zoé Whitley’s essay, and the recollections from a number of people associated with this art in the documentation, all of whom were black participants, further underscored that there is a black American culture to celebrate, one that has thrived despite its peripheral place within institutions. Furthermore, the written material demonstrate the value of critically engaging with objects on a number of levels.

In large part the success of the exhibition stems from the way each part its 10 sections could easily serve as the basis for a larger show. This short review by necessity will need to exclude many resonant components. The de Young venue, where I saw this Tate Museum organized exhibition, included 150 works by over 60 artists, showcasing the high-quality work of several communities of Black artists in the two decades after 1963. Grouped by movements, geography, ideas, aesthetic styles, and what it meant to be a Black artist at this time, three elements stood out. First, the project conveys various artistic goals and approaches co-existed within Black communities geographically and artistically. Second, the careful presentation reinforced that the art is sometimes speaking directly to the needs and aspirations of Black America and at other times is speaking to the artistic goals and aspirations of an artist who is both Black and working on problems related to his or her individual artistic goals. Finally, and what is particularly noteworthy about this groundbreaking project, is that as the curators skillfully interweave the socio-political dialogue with individual artist voices/practices it retains a degree of nuance that is rarely conveyed in so sweeping an undertaking.

The first room, centered on the Spiral Group, immediately establishes the multi-dimensionality of the research and display. Spiral was a collective of “Negro” artists (“Negro” was the accepted nomenclature of that time) formed in New York City in response to two pivotal events. One was the push for Civil Rights legislation in the Spring of 1963, supported by John F. Kennedy after peaceful Civil Rights activists were attacked in Birmingham, Alabama. The second came later that summer, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his powerful “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. These artists chose the “Spiral” name and logo to symbolize an ever-expanding and universal humanism as they asked what role they might play in the fight for equality.

Spiral’s sole group exhibition in 1965 included only works that were black and white. This stark palette proved capable of showcasing stylistic diversity with the black/white contrast connoting the polarized racial relations of the times. This section ranged from Romane Beardon collages to abstract work by Emma Amos and Charles Alston. Norman Lewis’s two powerful pieces in this area framed the exhibition’s thrust, potently introducing works that meld the Black and American experience. One, Processional (1965), was inspired by three Civil Rights marches. At first, the viewer sees an abstract array of shapes interwoven within a middle band crossing a black ground that covers much of the canvas. This strip expands on the right with the tonality of the figures/shapes becomes whiter as it becomes broader. As one engages with the piece, one’s perception of the markings moves the initial sense of abstraction to a realization that there are in effect figures crossing the canvas and growing in size as well, much as the Civil Rights marches became more populated over time. Perhaps the increase of white figures denotes that Whites, too, were joining the Civil Rights marches as they grew in size? This extraordinary interplay between abstraction and social statement is even more pronounced in an earlier Lewis painting also in this area, America the Beautiful. Painted around 1960, here the initially abstract white shapes resolve into figures shrouded in white. Their triangular heads allude to hooded figures (Ku Klux Klansmen) who are marching with crosses. Thus, what at first appeared to be a rich monochromatic patterning includes a pointed commentary that Mark Godfrey sums up well in the catalog:

“Lewis drew on his facility, honed since the early 1950s, to populate a ground with a dense circle of shapes that could appear both as a series of abstract forms and as a gathering of people. In America the Beautiful, however, it is more accurate to say that these two readings happen in sequence: first the painting is read as a striking composition with dramatic contrasts of light and dark, jagged white shapes and large black expanses, and then one notices the crosses and the triangular peaks. This does not turn the painting into an illustration of a KKK ceremony, but once one registers the Klansmen, the first reading becomes untenable. America the Beautiful is so effective because of this sequence: the fact that one does not immediately notice the KKK mirrors the blindness towards it that persisted in parts of America in the 1960s. When noticed, the illusion to a “Beautiful” America cannot be sustained” (p.153).

In Lewis’s case, this black and white composition is even more thought provoking when one contrasts it with the kind of black and white experimentation by others at that time. For example, Bridget Riley’s black and white Op-Art of the 1960s tantalizes the eye [She used a lot of color later], and Franz Kline adopted a monochrome palette to depict negative and positive space. While Lewis, like these artists, is addressing formal problems in his composition, he is unlike them because he is expanding the formal elements so as to also comment on social realities.

Elizabeth Catlett’s Black Unity (1968), similarly melds an exquisite aesthetic space with social commentary. The piece is two-sided, distinct, mahogany sculpture with the Black Power fist on one side and two faces carved in high relief on the other. Quite unlike the Lewis work formally, the Catlett piece nevertheless expresses a formal aesthetic that is compelling and captivating. One does not need to know its symbolic meaning or background to appreciate how deftly Catlett crafted the work. There is much more to say, however. Catlett designated an “undesirable alien” by the U.S. government for her political activism, moved to Mexico City in 1946. She was inspired to make this monumental fist in part by U.S. athletes who defiantly raised black-gloved fists at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics in solidarity with the Black Power movement. In 1975, when this sculpture was exhibited at Rainbow Sign in Berkeley, California, Catlett explained: “It’s the portrayal of a saying by Diego Rivera. An open hand with its fingers spread is very weak, but a closed fist where all the fingers are together is very strong.” What makes this piece particularly powerful is that the mahogany material reads as Black skin.

Some pieces in the show are more aesthetically challenging. When an artwork presents assertive and/or militant elements, it compels us to think about both the personal Black experience and the socio-political context. Betye Saar’s iconic The Liberation of Aunt Jemima falls into this category. Created for a 1972 exhibition on the theme of Black heroes, Aunt Jemima is an assemblage. I can remember wondering what to make of this potent artwork the first time I encountered it. Why was a Black woman presenting what seemed like a degrading Black Mammy image, one that seemed to reinforce negative stereotypes? At first glance one sees the exaggerated features of the stereotypical mammy figure in the center, wearing an apron and holding a broom in one hand. Quickly it becomes clear that she is holding a rifle in the other hand, and that there are many mammies reverberating throughout the work. One, inset into the body of the dominant figure, is holding a mixed-race child (said to represent the sexual assault and subjugation of black women slaves by white men). The advertisements for the Aunt Jemima brand that provide the background wallpaper bring to mind Andy Warhol multiples, where he uses a single face to create a mosaic, repeating a single face over and over again. Compositionally, Saar also melds or references Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ Napoleon on his Imperial Throne (1806) and the 1967 iconic photograph of Black Panther leader Huey Newton. While Aunt Jemima holds a broom and a rifle, the Ingres painting shows a godlike Napoleon on a throne holding the sceptre of Charlemagne in his right hand and the sceptre of justice in his left. The Huey Newton satire has him sitting in a wicker chair holding a gun in one hand and a spear in the other.

Like the coding in Christian Madonna and Child paintings, knowing the meaning of the Aunt Jemima stereotype makes it clear that Saar is making a personal and coded statement as well as a political parody in taking on the concept of a Black hero. The assemblage isn’t just about the final object. It also conveys that transforming Aunt Jemima into art was a powerful and liberating process, much like performing a ritual can bring about a positive state of mind. From this perspective, the derogatory image used to reinforce a stereotype became a statement about empowerment. The coupling of cleansing and empowering seemed to match with the ritualistic component of other works in the Betye Saar section. It also underscored an element that reverberated throughout the show: that the individual creative process and communal issues often came together in a way that conveyed Black pride and Black power in both communal terms and in terms of individual self-respect. In other words, the art sometimes captures how creativity can transform negatives into positives.

One element the exhibition brought to mind over and over is how hard it is to capture experience — and how deftly several of these artists do, nonetheless. Within this, one question the show raised is does visual art serves as a counterpoint to Black music? The self-sufficient, self-confident, and skillfulness contained in many of these material objects didn’t break into American culture the way the jubilant identity of Black music (e.g., jazz) did. Yet, the formal elegance of the Roy DeCarava photographs is breathtaking as they reveal the diversity and complexity of communities. The sections of Los Angeles artists (Charles White, David Hammons, Timothy Washington, Noah Purifoy, John Outterbridge, John T. Riddle Jr., and Melvin Edwards) present transformation, personal, and political themes. Abstractions, like William T. Williams dynamic improvisation Trane (Coltrane) deserve far more commentary than this sentence! Why is it that abstract works evoking musical dynamics — in this case jazz itself — defy linguistic terminology? Similarly, the survey of how exclusion from museums led to the development of public art projects was inspirational, a fact accentuated by an array of African American murals projected on the wall in one of the rooms. In addition, portraiture deserves more attention. Some artists painted portraits of revolutionary leaders such as Malcolm X and Angela Davis. while others focused on ordinary people and their families. For example, Barkley Hendricks was struck by the absence of Black subjects when he visited numerous European art museums. Returning home to Philadelphia, he began painting distinctive images of friends and acquaintances that project strength, pride, and confidence. Hendricks explained his amazing photorealist work saying, “I wasn’t ever interested in speaking for all Black folks. Much of what I was trying to do with my work was to be as good a painter as I could be.”

The final area highlights Just Above Midtown (JAM), a gallery founded by Linda Goode Bryant in Manhattan. In the catalog she explains the opening of the space was the result of a conversation with David Hammons. “I asked, ‘When are we going to be able to see your work in New York?’ He replied, ‘I don’t show in white galleries.’ Without thought I answered, ‘Oh, okay, I guess I’m going to have to start a gallery” (catalog, p. 348). She did, and from 1974 through 1986 JAM championed pioneering artists such as Hammons, known for his sculptural, print, and video art; Senga Nengudi, whose sculptures reference the Black female body; and conceptual and performance artists Lorraine O’Grady. The David Hammons sculpture in this section is more improvisational and experimental than the equally impressive body prints earlier in the show. Titled Bag Lady in Flight, 1975 (reconstructed 1990), the JAM piece was arranged using ordinary brown paper bags. The shape evokes a pair of flapping wings and he has glued human hair glued along its center spine and edges to suggest a human-bird hybrid. The artists intention was to conjure up a woman’s dream to escape her homeless conditions through flight. Hammons declared, “We should look at these images and see how positive they are, how strong and powerful.”

It is often said that during Norman Lewis’s career he struggled against a pronounced double blindness, a complementary inability of others either to see his blackness or to see past it. While his peers recognized his paintings as exceptional, the question of his race, his “Otherness,” always lingered. This kind of social double blindness is often coupled with the idea of “double consciousness,” introduced by W. E B. Du Bois in his 1903 publication, The Souls of Black Folk. Du Bois used the concept to describe the sense of an internal or psychological challenge one faced when always looking at one's self through the eyes of others. For him it was characteristic of his challenge in reconciling his African heritage with an upbringing in a European-dominated society. This show captured both, comprehensively illuminating the lived Black experience during a transformative and turbulent time in America.

In closing, it was exciting to see how these Black artists challenged the status quo and stimulating to engage with the idea of identity multi-dimensionally. Although I knew several of the pieces in the show previously, I didn’t grasp the proud declarations of selfhood, brotherhood, sisterhood, and nationhood to the degree that the show and catalog evoke. The grouping of different aesthetic strategies was particularly effective in elevating the art in relation to the turbulent times because it brought to life how these artists were grappling with what it means to be an artist as well as with what it means to be a Black artist. Within this scope, Soul of a Nation conveys how questions like how an artist should respond to political and cultural changes are logically expanded into questions about whether there is a “Black art” or even a “Black aesthetic”? The project also captures that many debates operate on a number of levels: Does/should a Black artist work for a Black audience or a “universal” one?  Should an artist create legible images with easily “read” statements or make abstract work? Where/how do materials and craft fit? How does art intersect with pride, community, and education? Finally, this rather pedestrian review essentially fails to capture how remarkably well Soul of a Nation engages its audience to think about Black culture culturally.

References

[1] Many of the events connected to the show are available online. I highly recommend the video of the Soul of a Nation Symposium at the Crystal Bridges Museum.  Several of the artists in the exhibition give extended presentations about their work in the video and the Tate curators, Mark Godfrey and Zoé Whitley, explain their concept and research. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1n52z10QzMo.