“Soul of a Nation – Art in the Age of Black Power, exhibition review: Pride and prejudice,” By Matthew Collings

Franklin Bowling (British, Guyana-born; b. 1936): Texas Louise, 1971. Acrylic on canvas, 282 x 665 cm (111-1/8 x 261-3/4 inches). Image courtesy of the Artist and Hales Gallery, London, UK. © Franklin Bowling.

“Soul of a Nation – Art in the Age of Black Power, exhibition review: Pride and prejudice”

‘This ambitious and energetic show charts 20 years of the struggles that formed the modern black artistic identity in America’

By Matthew Collings

“Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power”
Through October 22, 2017
Tate Modern, London
Info: http://bit.ly/2eRs75H

Feel the force: Benny Andrews’s Did the Bear Sit Under a Tree?, 1969 Estate of Benny Andrews/DACS, London/VAGA, NY 2017

Tate Modern’s Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power is a trip through 20 years of black artists in the US experimenting with what black art could possibly be. Some of it is worthy but dull. Some of it is great — and often precisely because it’s rather ambiguous about the big issue. And some is absolutely great and focused on the issue but couldn’t care less about being art.

It covers a 20-year period from 1963. Terminology was on the minds of the curators. “Negro” gave way to “black” in the period of Civil Rights, and “African American” replaced “black” in the Reagan era. 1963 was the year of the Great March on Washington led by Dr Martin Luther King. It was in that year and responding to that event that the black art group, Spiral, was formed in New York. The Spiral art featured in the show plunges us into the contrasting moods and sensibilities that characterise the exhibition. It includes the fantastically refined and exquisite collages of Romare Bearden made from cut-up faces and bodies found in photos in popular magazines (Ebony, Life and so on) but also tasteful (albeit perhaps rather humdrum) abstracts by Norman Lewis, and propagandistic pictures of demonstrating black crowds in a broad social realist style by Reginald Gammon.

Benny Andrews worked with Bearden in another group, the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition. In Did the Bear Sit Under a Tree? (1969), a black protester shakes his fist at the American flag, which is meant to protect him, but is seen closed-off in its own cold space.

Elizabeth Catlett’s Black Unity, 1968 (Catlett Mora Family Trust/DACS, London/VAGA, NY 2017)

Very different is the selection of graphic art by Emory Douglas, a Black Panther minister (he joined the party in 1967) and co-founder of the party newspaper, as well as designer of its cover art. In his pictures preaching revolutionaries confront us in thick black outlines with sunrise patterns bursting from their heads. Modern warrior mothers bear babes in arms and machine guns. Reflections in the lenses of a black child’s sunglasses show the free breakfasts the Black Panthers provide for poor, working-class families.

Sometimes there’s a deliberate adolescent regression, it seems. Paintings within this bracket are often pretty mesmerising. Works by Jeff Donaldson, Barbara Jones-Hogu, Nelson Stevens, Carolyn Lawrence, Gerald Williams and Wadsworth Jarrell — all members of the AfriCOBRA group, founded in 1968, in Chicago — tell us about slogans, staring eyes, beating drums, horned devils and exploding psychedelia.

“Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power”
Through October 22, 2017
Tate Modern, London
Info: http://bit.ly/2eRs75H

By Matthew Collings, Reprint from Standard.co.uk, 11 July 2017, © 2017 Evening Standard Ltd.


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