Category Archives: Photography

Shahidul Alam: Truth To Power

Rubin Museum, New York
Exhibition Through May 4th

Shahidul Alam: Truth to Power presents the first comprehensive U.S. museum survey of Shahidul Alam, the renowned Bangladeshi photographer, writer, activist, and institution-builder and a Time magazine Person of the Year in 2018. Over 40 images and ephemera will show the breadth of his practice and impact throughout his four-decade career. The exhibition includes portraits, landscapes, and scenes of daily life, strife, and resistance in the “majority world”—a phrase Alam has used since the 1990s to reframe the notion of the “third world” or “global south.”

Shahidul Alam, Smriti Azad, Dhaka, 1994. Courtesy of Drik, © Shahidul Alam

The term also confronts the ways in which Western media continues to define how the majority of the world’s population—especially Bangladesh—is portrayed in relation to poverty and disaster. 

© Shahidul Alam

This pioneering exhibition aims to provide visitors with a nuanced view of Bangladesh and South Asia, to explore systems of personal and collective agency, and to underscore the importance of self-representation, empowerment, and truth as embodied in Alam’s life and work.

A mural of Noor Hossain on a campus wall in Dhaka. The writing on his back reads “Let Democracy Live.” © Shahidul Alam

While shining an unflinching light on major Bangladeshi tragedies and struggles, Alam’s images reveal a country and cultures often misunderstood and misrepresented. In addition to his powerful photographs, Alam has made an impact in Bangladesh, across South Asia, and even globally as the conceptual architect of transformative institutions, including Drik Picture Library, Drik Gallery, Pathshala South Asia Media Institute, Chobi Mela Photography Festival, and Majority World Photos. The regional solidarity he catalyzed cannot be overstated and will be illustrated through the exhibition narrative. 


Shahidul Alam after his release from Dhaka’s central prison, November 20, 2018. Photograph: Suman Paul/AFP/Getty Images

Alam’s role as changemaker is one he inhabits with equal resolve and energy. His belief in nurturing visual literacy has driven him to go beyond mere advocacy: Through the institutions he has built, he empowers the disenfranchised and misrepresented to tell their own stories.

Edited by Beth Citron

Contemporary Photographers and the Camera Obscura

Manhattan Bridge

By Laura Gardner Heyrman

In this digital age, many contemporary photographers are turning to techniques from photography’s early years. One of the most popular of these is the camera obscura. In this post, we’ll look at the camera obscura and five photographers who have created compelling images with it.

Above: Abelardo Morell (Cuban, b. 1948): Camera Obscura: View of the Manhattan Bridge, April 30th, Afternoon, 2010 © Abelardo Morell. Inkjet print; 60 x 75 in. / 152.4 x 190 cm

illustration-camera-obscura
Illustration of the camera obscura principle, possibly from the 18th century

The camera obscura actually predates the invention of photography. Though sometimes called a pinhole camera, that term more properly refers to a device that uses photographic film to capture an image. “Camera obscura” means “dark room” and the device consists of a lightproof box or room, with a small opening through which light is allowed to enter. An upside-down image of whatever is outside the opening will be projected into the box. Mirrors and prisms can be used to re-orient the image and a lens can be installed in the opening to sharpen the image. The theory of the camera obscura was described as early as 500 BCE and experiments with the device are described by a number of authors as early as 500 CE. By the Renaissance, artists were probably using the images projected using a camera obscura as a drawing aid, since an artist could trace the image projected into the box. In the early 19th century, the camera obscura device was combined with light sensitive films or plates to create true photography. Our term “camera” for a photographic device derives from the name of the earlier device.

Contemporary photographers are using the camera obscura in various ways as part of their image-making process. An artist who has been working with the camera obscura for many years is Cuban-born American photographer Abelardo Morell. (image above) For Morell, the camera obscura has always been a means of blending interior and exterior. The use of a lens gives both equal weight in the final image. By photographing the projected image in works like “Camera Obscura: View of the Manhattan Bridge”, Morell conveys the sense of amazement that camera obscura projections often inspire.

giza-pyramidVera Lutter (German, b. 1960): Chephren and Cheops Pyramids, Giza, April 12, 2010
Gagosian ©Vera Lutter. Unique silver gelatin print; 14 3/8 × 21 1/8 in. / 36.5 × 53.7 cm

In contrast to Morell’s approach, German photographer Vera Lutter uses only the camera obscura and sheets of light-sensitive paper to create her images. Since she projects the image directly onto the paper, the image is negative – the light areas are seen as dark and the shadows as light. Many of Lutter’s images have a deliberately mysterious look, like this example created during a visit to Egypt in 2010. For Lutter, using the camera obscura and reversing dark and light are deliberate efforts to make the familiar seem strange.

china-bird's nestShi Guorui (Chinese, b. 1964): Bird’s Nest Stadium, 15 Jan 2008
Kunstmuseum Bern © Shi Guorui. Gelatin silver print; 4.5 × 11.25 feet / 137 × 343 cm

Like Lutter, Chinese photographer Shi Guorui creates images directly on light-sensitive paper, often huge sheets well-suited to his panoramic views of urban landscapes. This example is four and half feet tall and over eleven feet wide and depicts the famous Bird’s Nest Stadium constructed in Beijing for the 2008 Olympics. Shi chooses places that play important roles in human life, but his long exposure times cause any moving objects or figures to disappear from the image. The resulting image, Shi believes, will make the viewer aware of the permanent and the temporary, of the past, the present, and the future.

strindberg-room
Marja Pirilä (Finnish, b. 1957): In Strindberg’s Rooms 2, just when I walk here, 2017
Galleria Heino, Helsinki © Marja Pirilä. Pigment print: 44.88 x 57.48 in. / 114 x 147 cm

Finnish artist Marja Pirilä uses the camera obscura in a wide variety of applications, often constructing installations of the devices through which viewers can move. In 2015, the artist lived in a darkened room for six months, creating various apertures to turn her living space into a camera obscura. Pirilä says “The lens holes in the windows were an interface between the inside and outside worlds, just like the lenses in my eyes are the interface between me and the world. With that interface and light, the reflections of the outside world became part of the room, just like the world becomes part of me.” For “In Strindberg’s Room 2 – just when I walk here,” she photographed the camera obscura’s projected image, but moved into the image so that her body disrupts the camera obscura’s projection.

glass-tower
Robert Calafiore (American): Torre di Vetro (Glass Tower) 09.27.12, 2012
Klompching Gallery, Brooklyn © Robert Calafiore. Unique pinhole c-type print; 40 × 30 in. / 101.6 × 76.2 cm

American photographer Robert Calafiore uses a hand built pinhole camera to create his vividly colored still lifes and figure studies. His still life subjects, as in “Torre di Vetro (Glass Tower) 09.27.12,” are arrangements chosen from a family collection of glassware. In addition to exploiting the characteristics of his wide-angle lens and light sensitive paper, Calafiore’s long exposures allow him to manipulate the still life objects and alter the apparent colors and transparency of the objects in the final image. The unique prints that result from his efforts show what could never be seen by the naked eye and make the ordinary appear fantastical.

More by and about these artists:

Calafiore, Robert: http://robertcalafiore.com/
Lutter, Vera: https://veralutter.net/
Morell, Abelardo: http://www.abelardomorell.net/
Pirilä, Marja: http://www.marjapirila.com/index.html
Shi Guorui: http://www.chinaphotoeducation.com/Carol_China/Shi_Guorui.html

 

Francesca Woodman: Italian Works

Through December 15th
Victoria Miro, Venice
victoria-miro.com

by Matt Carey-Williams

It’s raining here in Wiltshire. So, sat by the fire, with a glass of red to comfort the soul, my mind drifts to sunny Venice and our heartwarming exhibition of photographs by the enormously talented Francesa Woodman. This is her “Self-portrait, Easter, Rome, Italy, 1978 (1.160)”; the most sublime little gelatin silver estate print and, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful works in Victoria Miro Gallery Venice’s show dedicated to Woodman’s practice in Italy. Woodman was born in Denver in 1958 and was educated in Colorado and Massachusetts. Her family owned an old farm just outside of Florence and Woodman summered there for much of her childhood, learning to speak fluent Italian as a result. A child prodigy, she enrolled in the Rhode Island School of Design in 1975 and, as part of her honors program, lived and studied in Rome between 1977 and 1978. This is where she made this gentle, elegant, stripped back yet haunting photograph. It’s typical in that Woodman exposes the fragility of (feminine) self through the interaction of her (more often than not) naked body with a bare, distressed, usually ambiguous, interiorized space. Here she sits, scrunched up in a somewhat anxious pose against a mottled chevron-thrusting plaster wall and hexagonally-tiled floor. Even the purity of geometry is discombobulated by Woodman’s insistence on an extended exposure for her print, blurring image, time and meaning. Around the corner from her apprehensive self stands a lone Calalily (voicing soft whispers of Mapplethorpe), propped up against the wall. Its thrusting vertical stem and marginally exposed flower head providing the gateway to Woodman’s exploration of both gender and sexuality, already communicated with the depiction of her naked self. The artist was barely 20 when she made this simple yet utterly beguiling image. A strangely unbreakable delicacy prevails but one, alas, that would not last long. She would live only until the age of 22, committing suicide in New York by jumping out of her loft on 19 January 1981. Her images embody a pain only poetry can evince. Achingly beautiful work.

” ‘National Geographic’ Turned to a Photo Historian to Help Reckon With Its Colonialist Past. Even He Was Unsettled by What He Found,” By Ben Davis

” ‘National Geographic’ Turned to a Photo Historian to Help Reckon With Its Colonialist Past. Even He Was Unsettled by What He Found”

‘John Edwin Mason, a historian of race and photography, spoke to Ben Davis about examining the famed magazine’s troubled history.’

By Ben Davis


After more than a century of covering the Earth’s manifold splendor and diverse peoples through distinctly Western eyes, leaving it open to charges of colonialism (if not outright racism), National Geographic has now turned its lens on itself.

The magazine’s special April issue is dedicated to examining the subject of race from a variety of angles: theories of the social construction of race, the racial profiling of black motorists, the present-day renaissance of historical black colleges, the mounting tensions triggered by the demographic shifts in the nation, and even Brazilian artist Angelica Dass‘s project “Humanae,” which pairs over 4,000 people from around the world with different Pantone color swatches. Yet National Geographic editor Susan Goldberg’s letter introducing the issue has made the biggest splash, with its blunt admission: “For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist. To Rise Above Our Past, We Must Acknowledge It.

Given National Geographic’s status as an icon of mainstream taste and its role in shaping how generations have viewed the world, the magazine’s mea culpa has been something of an event. Over the last week, Goldberg’s letter has gained widespread media attention and been debated across social media–which makes sense, considering that the 130-year-old magazine also claims to be the world’s biggest social media brand, boasting a staggering 350 million followers across various platforms, and thus a huge ability to shape public conversation.

National Geographic’s self-examination chimes with a larger trend of legacy media properties reexamining their historical blind spots, including the New York Times’s recent project of writing obituaries for women overlooked by the Paper of Record in their time. And while the “Race Issue” has not been without criticism–particularly of its cover story, which uses fraternal twins who have different skin colors to make the point that race is a social construct–the sheer amount of attention that the gesture has garnered means that it is likely to inspire more similar gestures.

The research that formed the basis of Goldberg’s letter was done by John Edwin Mason, who teaches African history and the history of photography at the University of Virginia, in the College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. A specialist in both the culture of South Africa and the Civil Rights photographer Gordon Parks, Mason was given the mandate to dig into the National Geographic archive to assess the magazine’s history in anticipation of the April issue.

I spoke with Mason about his research process, the historical context that shaped National Geographic, and how the social movements of the 1960s slowly transformed its coverage–just as, little by little, the social movements of the present seem to be reshaping its coverage today.

Photography historian John Edwin Mason. Image courtesy John Edwin Mason.

Let’s start with the question of why you think this has been such a big deal.

When Susan Goldberg asked me to do this, and told me about this special issue on race, I thought that it was going to get a lot of attention. It has really great people writing for it. I know some of the photographers, and they’re fantastic. And I also knew that these are people who are not going to pull their punches–they’d pull their story before they pull their punches! “This issue is going to make some waves”–that was my thinking.

So I went off and did the research, and the issue was published–and the focus has been entirely on Susan Goldberg’s letter. It’s not on the issue itself, which I think deserves a little more attention than it’s been getting.

And I was surprised. I didn’t reckon with how emotionally invested people are in National Geographic. I think it’s because so many of us, even those of us who grew up African American like myself, experienced this magazine as part of our childhoods. We consumed it pretty uncritically.

National Geographic took me places I’d never been and probably will ever go; it showed me strange things from around the world. I mean, I became a historian of Africa. Did National Geographic play some kind of role in that? Probably. I wanted to go to some of those places I saw in the magazine and meet those people.

Some of that popular investment has to do with the power of its photography, right?

I think it’s more than that. You know, when I was growing up, in the mid- to late-’60s and into the ’70s, the photography was OK–but it got much, much better later. The real allure was what they were showing.

I believe it was the first magazine to go full color.

For sure, the photography always sold the magazine. They were using color very early on, even when it was a very, very expensive process. Before World War II, before Kodachrome, National Geographic was dazzling, like Life only better in terms of the paper stock that they were using and the reproduction of the photographs. And humans are visual. We really, really like to look.

What was the brief that you were given?

It was really open-ended: Go into our archives, find stuff that has to do with the way that the magazine presented race, people of color, Asia, Africa, Latin America, to its readers; then come back and tell Susan Goldberg, the editor, about it.

And, look, I’m a historian. When a private institution like National Geographic says, “Come visit our archives,” that’s the best thing.

But going to their archives was important for the research, because I wanted to see the unpublished photographs. As you know, when a photographer goes off on assignment, he or she is going to come back with many, many more photos than ever get published. Looking at the slides or at the contact sheets or at the work prints can let you get a sense of what the photographer was seeing, what the photographer was not seeing, what the photographer was trying to make happen–because in the age before journalistic or documentary ethics were fully formed, many photographs were staged. You get a sense of how a visual scene was put together.

So I really appreciated the time in the archives. But I couldn’t spend all my time in Washington, DC. I had classes to teach and other writing to do, and so the bulk of the research I did was at the UVA library where, in bound volumes, we have each and every issue of National Geographic since it began publishing in the 1880s.

I couldn’t look at all of that material. So I said, OK, I’m going to poke around in the pre-World War II period–a bit. Poking around is too informal a term. I systematically read select years.

Pictured: Portrait of C.P. Scott (left) and H.E. Gregory. In a full-issue article on Australia that ran in 1916, aboriginal Australians were called “savages” who “rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings.” Image courtesy National Geographic.

You took a sample.

Yes. But I was really most interested in the post-World War II period, for two reasons. The first is that living Americans were shaped by the post-World War II issues, and the second is that the post-World War II era is when America emerges as the dominant world superpower. It is the era of the Civil Rights movement, which was likely to have an impact on the way that the magazine depicted people of color. It’s also the era of decolonization in Africa and Asia.

These factors would have to shape the way that the magazine shows the world–and they did, though not exactly in the ways that I expected.

To the general public, I’d say that the term “National Geographic photography” is already a kind of shorthand for a certain style of popular ethnographic photography. What was it that you found that surprised you?

National Geographic in many ways sets the standard for what I call reportage photography. That’s been increasingly the case since the 1970s, when there was a real uptick in the quality of photography appearing in the magazine. But there was always a general style of National Geographicphotography: National Geographic photography rarely has an edge. National Geographic photography rarely challenges the viewer.

You mean that it doesn’t give readers something that they wouldn’t have already expected from a place?

Things that they wouldn’t have expected in terms of exoticism or strangeness are OK. But things that they would not have expected in a sociological or political sense, not so much.

What I found was an absence that I didn’t expect to be quite so total. I was looking intensively at the period of decolonization. What I saw almost entirely missing was any sense that anti-colonial struggles were building and that nationalist sentiment was growing in Asia and Africa. I saw almost no signs of modern cosmopolitan Africans or the working class or the intellectuals who were driving these movements. I saw few signs of urbanizing Africa. I saw few signs of Africans making connections between each other on the continent or looking to anti-colonial and anti-racist movements across the globe.

Anyone who read National Geographic would have been gobsmacked by the emergence of new nations, and totally unprepared to understand why this was happening. I expected National Geographic to be ambivalent. I didn’t expect National Geographic to ignore these movements almost completely. That really was something of a surprise.

Those struggles were very much a part of the Civil Rights conversation in the US: Martin Luther King going to Africa, speaking about its transformation in his sermon “The Birth of a New Nation.

Even Richard Nixon was present at the birth of Ghana! Foreign policy elites were very concerned about courting these new nations. It was a complicated relationship, because Britain and France, the colonizing nations, were also our allies. Nevertheless, other media showed a strong awareness that these things were happening.

I know Life magazine very, very well, because I’m writing a book about Gordon Parks and I’m writing an article about Life‘s representation of Africa. Life paid a lot of attention. Not all of it good, but also not all of it bad.

I was just reading your essay about Life where you talk about how, in the face of the Cold War and Civil Rights struggles, the magazine’s tone reflected a kind of a compromise.

There was an uncomfortable ambivalence in Life. After all, Life was almost entirely produced by white Americans who had grown up and were comfortable with a very segregated society, and many had their doubts about the fitness of African Americans or African people and Asian people for self-government and self-rule.

On the other hand, Life was also full of people who were uncomfortable with segregation and who did believe that African Americans had gotten a raw deal and that maybe colonization had its problems. There’s a reason why the magazine hired Gordon Parks, right? It didn’t hire two Gordon Parks. He was the one and only African American on the editorial staff for a very long time. But at least he was there.

So Life was deeply ambivalent. With National Geographic, you don’t sense that ambivalence at all.

In fact, you see the enthusiastic embrace of European and American colonialism, because, by the way, we also had colonized the Philippines and Puerto Rico and Hawaii and the entire continental United States. National Geographic was very comfortable with the commonsense notion that the white man by right gets to dominate the globe, that rule by North American and Western European powers simply makes sense. This state of affairs was seen as the natural working out of the laws of human development that placed white people on top, and especially Western Europeans and Americans, who had a responsibility, at best, to lift the Asian or African masses out of darkness and into the light of civilization–because of course those peoples couldn’t do it on their own. They needed help and guidance.

So National Geographic is less ambivalent than Life, but actually less ambivalent in the direction of being more comfortable with colonialism?

Exactly. They embraced the colonialist vision of the world until well after World War II. I think that what’s happening in the ’50s is that they’re plugging their ears and shutting their eyes. They don’t want to know about colonization, and they don’t want to know about nationalist movements, like a child sticking his fingers in his ears and going, “La la la la la.”

“Cards and clay pipes amuse guests in Fairfax House’s 18th-century parlor,” reads the caption in a 1956 article on Virginia history. Although slave labor built homes featured in the article, the writer contended that they “stand for a chapter of this country’s history every American is proud to remember.” Photograph by Robert F. Sisson and Donald McBain. Image courtesy National Geographic.

Do you see this as a conscious editorial policy or an unconscious bias, or a mix of the two?

It’s a mix. It does make a difference that National Geographic came at a moment when the US was becoming a global power. It starts in the late 19th century, the era of America building an overseas empire. It is also the time when elites in Western Europe and North America divided the world into the white world and the “darker races.” All sorts of foreign relations were racialized; they only cease to be so with the coming of the Cold War.

The people who put out National Geographic were intimately connected to the world of corporate and political elites. National Geographic and its editors courted presidents, vice presidents, Supreme Court justices, members of Congress, and were sometimes related to them.

They were also fabulously wealthy. National Geographic‘s longtime editor [Gilbert Hovey Grosvenor, editor from 1899-1954] was Alexander Graham Bell’s son-in-law. Graham Bell had made pots and pots of money through his telephone monopoly. Another longtime editor [Melville Bell Grosvenor, editor from 1957-67] was the son of the son-in-law. So it’s almost a family concern for a long time, and they were very wealthy and very elite and very comfortable in those worlds.

Part of the change in National Geographic that begins in the late ’60s early ’70s is due to an editorial change. Although, part of it was also that the Civil Rights movement and decolonization were finally catching up with it.

South African goldminers were “entranced by thundering drums” during “vigorous tribal dances,” a 1962 issue reported. Photograph by Kip Ross. Image courtesy National Geographic.

Susan Goldberg mentions the two stories about South Africa, one from 1977 and one from 1962 in which Apartheid isn’t mentioned at all.

The ’62 article is appalling in so many ways. It sees South Africa only through the eyes of white South Africans; it is not at all critical of Apartheid, notoriously one of the most brutal forms of white supremacy the world has ever known; and it comes more or less right after the Sharpeville Massacre, where 69 people at a peaceful nonviolent protest were shot and killed by the police, and many others were wounded. It comes at a time when the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa is global news. Nelson Mandela’s name is well known. The African National Congress is a well known freedom movement.

I can’t help but keep drawing parallels with Life. Life had a very strong anti-Apartheid article [“South Africa and Its Problem“] that was almost entirely done by Margaret Bourke-White in 1950. Bourke-White was a really good journalist who doesn’t get the credit she deserves. She went to South Africa, and she was horrified, really horrified by what she saw. I’ve read the letters that she wrote after her trip. Flames come off the page. The Lifemagazine photo essay doesn’t have that anger, because the editors didn’t publish the stronger photos, but Bourke-White’s essay is still really intense and it stands up after 50 years. I mean, it says what South Africa was all about: racial oppression and class exploitation. It’s really something, almost neo-Marxist.

Then, after the Sharpeville massacre, Life did two stories. The first one was just about the horror of the event, with really powerful Ian Berry pictures of people fleeing for their lives. A week later they published Peter Magubane’s famous funeral picture of just rows of caskets, with Anglican priests saying prayers over them.

I think this is a really important point: It’s not just that National Geographic reflected the blindnesses and default white view of its time. It was actually behind the times, even relative to its peers.

I’ve listened to interviews with the National Geographic photographers. Some were completely on board with the way that that National Geographicoperated and saw the world, and you’ll hear them describing going out on assignment and looking to take pictures that showed people living a life that might have been lived 500 years ago. They consciously wanted to place their subjects in this timeless unchanging past.

But you’ll hear other interviews with the National Geographic staff photographers who would say, “Man, we hated that shit.” In fact, I heard one recently speaking about that 1962 article. The photographer essentially says that it was shameful, and that the staff at the time was aware. He says, “We were young, we were rebellious, but we were being edited by old white guys”–and, of course, they’re all white guys, but their editors were old men in their 60s.

There was a sense of generational conflict going on, of internal dissent. I tend to talk in sweeping terms about National Geographic‘s corporate culture, but it’s important to say that there was internal dissent.

In fact, if we were looking for the changes in the 1970s, it may be also a generational change. In the ’70s, there was a new editor-in-chief and I’m sure new subordinate editors, and I think that undercurrent of dissent is what begins the process of change.

Did your brief end in the ’70s essentially?

No, I took it up into the 21st century.

And you do see a shifting in the magazine over time?

I mean, it’s gradual, and sometimes it’s one step forward, two steps back, like all change. The magazine in the ’70s is not what it was in the ’60s. The same thing can be said about the ’90s and into the present.

Susan’s letter is not the start of something; it’s a culmination of changes that have already happened. It’s making explicit the critique of the magazine, where I think the magazine has been privately or implicitly critiquing itself for some time now.

The challenge for the magazine going forward is: now what do you do?


Featured image: April 2018 issue of National Geographic, a single topic issue on the subject of race. Courtesy of National Geographic.


By Ben Davis, Reprint from Artnet, 21 March 2018, (c) 2018 Artnet Worldwide Corporation.

“Whose Nation? The Art of Black Power,” By Nell Irvin Painter

“Whose Nation? The Art of Black Power”

By Nell Irvin Painter


A few years ago, when I was a Fulbright Scholar in Britain, students gushed to me about their all-time favorite period in United States history: the heroic civil rights and Black Power era of the 1960s and 1970s. That’s when America was really fascinating, they told me, when issues were clear, and the right Americans made their voices heard. Many Americans feel this way, too. It is true that the civil rights revolution enkindled the concept of black power, which galvanized black artists—playwrights, choreographers, filmmakers, musicians, as well as visual artists—to make work that reflected the ideologies and energies of the era. It really did seem in the 1960s and 1970s that artists could make a difference in the struggle against racial discrimination by joining political activists as a force against white supremacy. Those young people in the UK were right to imagine a time when valiant Americans were outspoken and relatively united. And here I stress “imagine,” because in fact, ideological disagreements had hardly disappeared at that time. Last year, an ambitious art exhibition captured these hopes in visual form.

Faith Ringgold: United States of Attica, 1971–1972. ACA Galleries, New York/Artbook, D.A.P.

I come to “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” with two identities: as a historian and as a visual artist. I am interested in art history: in the machinations of history and memory as they apply to art, and in changes in taste and how they relate to power, money, and cultural visibility. As an artist, I’m attentive to how art is presented and actually looks in physical space. This piece, the first of a two-part review, focuses on the catalogue and how the works and ideas of the exhibition are represented in a book, an object that I hold in my hand in Newark, New Jersey (and an object of great beauty it is—a museum artifact in its own right). In a second piece, I will review the “Soul of a Nation” show at the Crystal Bridges Museum of Art in Bentonville, Arkansas.

Black art is often characterized as solely a statement of identity, as commentary on blackness in world history, or as a critique of racism. Work by black artists is likely to get lumped together as black, regardless of period, medium, and style. This kind of grouping occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, when protests against exclusion prompted white-run museums to attempt to desegregate their collections. Some, like the Newark Museum in New Jersey, had made intermittent efforts to show black work. Others, like the Brooklyn Museum, had a steadier history. Still others had little idea even of where to start. Early museum outreach was prone to grasping at whatever works were easily obtained, then burying them in storage after protests calmed down. What little art criticism there was tended to neglect the visual meanings and value of the art.

Barkley L. Hendricks: What’s Going On, 1974. Barkley L. Hendricks/Jack Shainman Gallery/Megan & Hunter Gray

“Soul of a Nation,” which originated at the Tate Modern in London, features some 170 works made by black artists between 1963 and 1983. Co-curators Mark Godfrey and Zoé Whitley—who both curate the collection of international art at the Tate Modern—chose sixty-seven artists, living and dead, all but two of African descent: some of sustained prominence (for example, Romare Bearden, David Hammons, and Melvin Edwards); others who surged initially, then fell out of fashion (such as Charles White, Sam Gilliam, Dana C. Chandler Jr., and Kay Brown); and others, again, who produced steadily but have only recently achieved widespread acclaim. In this third group are two artists who experienced late but notable prominence: the sculptor Betye Saar, known for a wide range of styles starting with assemblages, and the vividly figurative painter, the late Barkley L. Hendricks. The cover of the Soul of a Nation catalogue features What’s Going On (1974), a Hendricks painting of emphatically dark-skinned figures, one a nude woman, the others wearing luminous white suits and hats.

Soul of a Nation answers the complaint that black visual artists have been making since the Harlem Renaissance, that their art suffers from a lack of serious engagement, notably compared with black music. To this day, black visual artists are rarely the subjects of lavish catalogues and lengthy personal essays. Soul of a Nation is certainly lavish, and while the catalogue spends time on individual artists, its strength lies in its acknowledgment of the important part institutions play in art’s creation and reception. Within the racist and sexist history of the American art world, black curators, collectors, and galleries have exerted a crucial countervailing influence.

Emma Amos: Eva the Babysitter, 1973. Emma Amos, the Amos family/RYAN LEE Gallery/Artbook, D.A.P.

Organized in three parts intended as introductory surveys of the art, artists, and movements of the civil rights and Black Power period, Soul of a Nation is rigorous and encyclopedic. The first section, “Spiral to FESTAC,” presents a history of institutions (voluntary organizations, galleries, art festivals) that showcased black art in the 1960s–1970s. It begins with Spiral—the 1963–1965 New York black artists’ cooperative, made up of all men but the youngest member, Emma Amos—whose founding statement announced that they wanted to discuss “the commitment of the Negro artist in the present struggle for civil liberties,” as well as the art-historical project of documenting African-American artists. Spiral dissolved in three years, as the artists did not agree with Romare Bearden, one of its founders, that members should embrace a uniform aesthetic. Older members, such as Hale Woodruff and Charles Alston, hesitated before making art they considered propaganda.

Romare Bearden: The Prevalence of Ritual: Baptism, 1964. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian/Artbook, D.A.P.

In addition, the question of how tightly to embrace the idea and the imagery of Africa also generated controversy in Spiral, as it did among other black people, including artists throughout the country. Spiral continued to inspire the artists involved and those who followed. Other collectives and organizations, like the Black Panther Party newspaper, the Studio Museum in Harlem, AfriCOBRA, and The Black Photographers Annual, are addressed as part of this survey. The section closes with the 1977 FESTAC festival in Nigeria, at the time the largest pan-African cultural gathering, an event that exemplified black American artists’ embrace of a diasporic identity and identification with a “‘trans-African’ ethos: a prevailing African sensibility that remained identifiable despite geographic distance and diasporic dispersal.”

Elizabeth Catlett Black: Unity, 1968. Photograph by Edward C. Robison III/Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas

The second section’s two essays address abstraction and figuration. “American Skin: Artists on Black Figuration,” by Zoé Whitley, begins with Hendricks and moves through a thoughtful survey of figurative artists like Faith Ringgold, best known for her narrative quilts, and the sculptor and graphic artist Elizabeth Catlett, both of whom created works that were explicitly political. Ringgold’s American People Series #20: Die  (1967) shows bloodied black and white people fighting with one another, arms and legs splayed, as terrified children look on. Catlett’s Black Unity (1968), a mahogany carved fist with two faces on the back, illustrates her interest in making art, as she said, “to service black people—to reflect us, to relate to us, to stimulate us, to make us aware of our potential.”

“Notes on Black Abstraction,” by Mark Godfrey, covers ground that will likely be unfamiliar to many, as abstract black art has long been ignored by museums and critics in favor of figurative representations of black life. This essay begins with the shaped canvases of Al Loving, who in 1969 became the first black artist with a solo show in the Whitney Museum of American Art. The work of the Abstract Expressionist painter Norman Lewis, long ignored but recently selling well, and of the photographer Roy DeCarava—known for his pictures of Harlem in the mid-twentieth century, but who also experimented with light, shadow, and abstraction in the 1960s—is considered and luxuriously illustrated.

Norman Lewis: America the Beautiful, 1960. Collection of Tonya Lewis Lee and Spike Lee/Estate of Norman W. Lewis; Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York

The third section, entitled “Recollections,” focuses on figures who were integral to the fostering and reception of black art during the Black Power era. While black art history goes back to the Howard University philosopher Alain Locke’s 1925 concept of African “ancestral arts” and the Howard artist James A. Porter’s Modern Negro Art(1943), the 1960s–1970s produced an outpouring of new commentary by art critics, historians, and curators such as David Driskell, Richard J. Powell, Deborah Willis, Lowery Stokes Sims, Cheryl Finley, and Camille Billops. In Now Dig This!: Art and Black Los Angeles, 1960–1980 and South of Pico: African American Artists in Los Angles in the 1960s and 1970s, the art historian Kellie Jones (thanked, but not quoted here) laid the groundwork for art of the Black Power era and for Soul of a Nation.

“Recollections” offers invaluable original, first person reminiscences by many of these artists, curators, gallerists, and publishers. The painter Samella Lewis founded The International Review of African American Art in 1976 to publish serious art criticism about black artists who were otherwise ignored by mainstream journals. David Driskell, also a painter, curated the pioneering 1976 exhibition “Two Centuries of Black American Art: 1750–1950,” a cornerstone of black art history. In 1976, Linda Goode Bryant founded the 57th Street gallery Just Above Midtown, which showed black artists such as the painter Palmer Hayden, photographer Dawoud Bey, and performance artist Senga Nengudi. Even today, with the exception of the small minority of internationally prominent artists with major gallery representation, most artists, especially black artists, lack the means to widely share their work.

Faith Ringgold: American People Series #20: Die, 1967. Faith Ringgold, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY

The British students I met on Fulbright imagined black voices speaking as one against American racism. In a sense, Soul of a Nation represents a composite voice, made up of a wide range of artists, curators, and writers: the diverse soul of black America at the time of Black Power. The title also seems to reference the fact that black nationalism regarded black America as a nation on its own. But “nation” in Soul of a Nation also implies that the art of this period confronts and concerns all Americans.

Near the beginning of the catalogue, Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation (a major funder of the project), writes that the “exhibition not only reflects on a particular period in American history, but reaffirms the integral role of art in the fight for social change.” Walker hopes that Soul of a Nation will provide insight into our past and inspire “empathy and action in the days to come.” The exhibition is explicitly intended to serve as a guide to art institutions seeking to desegregate their collections by race and gender, an issue that remains relevant today. Expanding what is seen and accepted as “American art,” then, is a fundamental target of the show. Soul of a Nationitself is an effort, supported by major institutions, to break down habits of exclusion: to reshape American art history by increasing the visibility of black artists then and now. But no single definition of black art can usefully embrace the work of contemporary artists as disparate as Kara Walker, Adam Pendleton, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Charles Gaines, Martin Puryear, and Joyce Scott. Race alone does not serve as a useful category in visual art. Soul of a Nation takes a snapshot of a different time, a moment when the work of black artists was most easily defined by race, and when black work was most frequently and emphatically black. It omits some work from the period that doesn’t fit this criterion, such as the landscapes of Barkley L. Hendricks and Hale Woodruff. Nonetheless, the exhibition surpasses the limitations of twentieth-century museums by including a great deal of work that does not shout its racial identity.

Reginald Gammon: Freedom Now, 1963. The National Afro American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce, Ohio/Artbook, D.A.P.

For all its capaciousness, the catalogue suggests that the exhibition should more properly be titled “Soul of the US-American Nation,” or even “Soul of the US-American Nation As Seen from Chicago and the Coasts.” The art of Black Power in its British, West Indian, and South American manifestations is all but absent here, even though, as Cheryl Finley has noted, British curators have taken on the Black Arts Movement in exhibitions like Nottingham Contemporary’s “The Place is Here” last year. Within the US, provincial artists of the civil rights era, like Herman Kofi Bailey in Atlanta, remain invisible, despite his service to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee as a graphic artist.

In our own Black Lives Matter times, when police brutality, racial discrimination, and voter suppression still disfigure American democracy, the issues that artists featured in Soul of a Nation sought to confront are very much still relevant. In trying to understand our current moment, we might look back to the American artists who worked to make sense of their nation in turmoil through creation, mutual support, and collective action.


Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power is published by Tate Publishing and distributed by Artbook, D.A.P. The exhibition is now at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas through April 23, and will be on view at the Brooklyn Museum from September 7 through February 3, 2019.


By Nell Irvin Painter, Reprint from The New York Review of Books, 4 February 2018, © 1963-2018 NYREV, Inc.