Less than six months after the Charlottesville riots, the current racial tension in the United States is unmistakeable. With a Reuters poll claiming that race relations in America are at an all-time low, Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power at the Tate Modern is more relevant than ever.
Beginning with work from 1963, the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Soul of a Nation features pieces from both established and lesser-known black artists across a range of mediums – from Martin Puryear’s sculpture to Faith Ringgold’s iconic tapestries to Betye Saar’s assemblages. The show is paved by videos of civil rights figures including Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Angela Davis, setting the tone for the Tate’s exploration of this influential and energetic period in American history.
First up is Spiral, a group founded in 1963 by African-American artists who aimed to to discover the true identity of black art. The famed collective only worked in black and white, navigating the extremes of racial politics. Spiral’s work is followed by Art on Streets and Figuring Black Power, groups that documented the reactions to racial violence in late 1963. Each adjoining room delves into a different movement or innovation by black artists across the USA up to 1983, such as AfriCOBRA in Chicago and East Coast Abstraction. The show’s leaflets are adorned with Barkley L. Hendricks self-portrait, Icon for My Man Superman (Superman Never Saved Any Black People – Bobby Seale), admittedly with the penis cropped out. Still, the full, uncensored painting is on display in the exhibit’s Black Heroes section, radiating strength and power – Superman who?
Though many of the featured artists and movements are unknown to those not yet familiar with this overlooked era of artistic and social progress, some have had an obvious influence on contemporary black artists and performers in the pop-culture sphere. One example is the Black Panthers, who singer Beyoncé paid homage to in her Super Bowl half-time show in 2016. In “Soul of a Nation,” visitors will find preserved Black Panther Party newspapers featuring the revolutionary illustrations of Emory Douglas, who famously stated that “the ghetto is a gallery.” Beyonce’s sister Solange Knowles is also featured in this exhibition, contributing two poems and a new track which reflect on the theme of black identity and womanhood.
Like many movements throughout history, the artists featured in “Soul Of A Nation” didn’t always agree on what black art should be. As visitors enter each room, they are presented by often contradictory quotes and ideas. The exhibit teaches viewers that there is no no right or wrong way to be a black artist, and does an excellent job reflecting on the varying viewpoints of the Civil Rights Movement. With work ranging form explicitly political to plain old aesthetically pleasing, “Soul Of A Nation” is a powerful examination of black history, art and identity that still resonates today.