” ‘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.

“… A New Show — Paul Klee’s Wartime Paintings Reveals the Beloved Artist’s Dark Side,” By Eileen Kinsella

“The Arrows Mean Death: A New Show of
Paul Klee’s Wartime Paintings Reveals the Beloved Artist’s Dark Side”

‘A show of more than 100 works by Swiss-German Surrealist Paul Klee shows the blood and gore behind his oeuvre.’

By Eileen Kinsella


An exhibition of work by Paul Klee aims to reveal a darker side of the Swiss-German painter. Currently on view at the Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern, Switzerland, “Klee in Wartime” features an array of often fantastical works informed by the artist’s experience during World War I.

“I always thought that the time during the first world war was so important for Klee’s development,” the Swiss museum’s chief curator Fabienne Eggelhôfer told artnet News. “It’s strange because even though he had to go to war, he always found the time to really work and evolve. It’s interesting to see how those two worlds go together.”

In the early 20th century, Klee was already well-established as a member of the avant-garde movement Der Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider), participating in numerous exhibitions in the years before the war. But the buzzing art scene came to an abrupt halt when conflict broke out in the summer of 1914. Klee’s friends and fellow Blue Rider artists, August Macke and Franz Marc, were killed in action in 1914 and 1916, respectively, and abstract pioneer Wassily Kandinsky temporarily fled back home to Russia.

Paul Klee, Farbige und graphische Winkel (1917). Courtesy Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern

Klee was drafted into the German army in 1916. Fortunately for him, he was not deployed to the front. Instead, he was posted to airfields far behind the lines where he was responsible for cash administration and painting aircraft with templates in the army’s air corps. Eggelhôfer, who conceived the idea for the Klee show, says she has long been fascinated by the artist’s continued artistic output during this period, as well as his ability “to keep this kind of ironic distance to what was happening during the war.”

The show consists of more than 130 works—including paintings, drawings, watercolors, prints, and even hand puppets—rooted in the Expressionist, Cubist, and Surrealist movements for which his oeuvre is known. Almost all are from the museum’s  collection, including an original Kaiser helmet from a Bavarian regiment that was a gift from esteemed Swiss dealer Eberhard Kornfeld. Working with another German institution, the Dreiländermuseum in Loerrach, the Zentrum Paul Klee also obtained loans of materials the artist worked with during his time in uniform.

Paul Klee, Der grosse Kaiser, zum Kampf geruestet (1921). Courtesy Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern

Eggelhôfer says the periods where Klee was physically separated from his family have proven to be particularly valuable for researchers: “He wrote a lot of postcards and letters to his wife [Bavarian pianist Lily Stumpf]. We know what he’s thinking because he explained to her how his military service was like playacting, with a sense of: ‘I’m just doing what they tell me to do, but I don’t really have anything to do with this.’”

If a sense of detachment offered the artist a kind of mental bunker in wartime, Klee was also extremely inventive during this period. He employed both imagery and materials from his military environment, including linen from airplane wings. “He became very interested in the material because, at the time, it was pretty difficult to get paper, so he began to work more with fabric and use the stencils—numbers and letters that each airplane had—to infuse his work with imagery,” Eggelhöfer says.

Paul Klee, Friedhof (1920). Courtesy Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern

Klee’s abstractions also featured weapon-related imagery—such as arrows and exploding zigzags—that the curator says may have been lost on some audiences. The arrows reference “flechettes,” short steel rods with extremely sharp points and fins to facilitate speed. Used by various armies at the time, the brutal weapons—said to be able to easily pierce a steel helmet or human skull—were dropped en masse from planes into the trenches of enemy troops.

In 1917, a year before being discharged, Klee produced a series of works that included what he described as “angular zigzag movements.” The gestures were meant to express the oppression, fear, menace, and destruction wartime populations endured on a mass scale.

The artist’s financial returns may have had a hand in obscuring the true meaning of those symbols. According to background material on the show, Klee “repeatedly addressed the state of war in his works. But he was barely able to sell works like this from 1914 to 1915. This is probably one reason why Klee considered a more abstract pictorial language more appropriate to the expression of contemporary events.”

The approach appears to have paid off—at least in hindsight. Some of Klee’s highest sale prices are for works painted after the war, such as the auction record of $6.8 million paid for Tänzerin (1932), at Christie’s London in June 2011.

As for the works on view in Bern, Eggelhöfer hopes the exhibition will spotlight a deeper, lesser-known side of the artist. “People often think of Klee as a magician of sorts, who created his own sort of mystical dream world,” Eggelhöfer says. “But he was commenting on politics, society and the reality of war and I wanted to present that.”

“Klee in Wartime” is on view at the Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, Switzerland, through June 3, 2018.


Featured image: Paul Klee, betroffener Ort (1922). Courtesy Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern


By Eileen Kinsella, Reprint from Artnet, 12 March 2018, © 2018 Artnet Worldwide Corporation.

“… Mona Lisa May Leave the Louvre… ,” By Henri Neuendorf

“To Combat ‘Cultural Segregation,’ Mona Lisa May Leave the Louvre for the First Time in a Half-Century”

‘The world’s most famous painting hasn’t stepped foot outside the Louvre since 1974.’

By Henri Neuendorf


The Mona Lisa might be packing her bags. Leonardo da Vinci‘s masterwork could leave the Louvre for the first time in 44 years, French culture minister Françoise Nyssen suggested on Thursday.

Speaking to radio station Europe 1, the minister said she was “seriously considering” including the world’s most famous painting in a traveling exhibition of France’s masterpieces, and has held talks with the president of the Louvre in Paris to discuss the idea.

The Mona Lisa has been something of a homebody that last four decades. The last time the iconic portrait went on loan was in 1974 when it went on view in Tokyo and Moscow. Prior to that, Leonardo’s masterpiece traveled to Washington and New York in 1963 and was removed for safekeeping during World War II. Most recently, the Italian city of Florence launched a bid to bring the painting back to Leonardo’s hometown, where the artist is thought to have created the work, but the request was turned down by France’s previous socialist government.

According to the Guardian, France’s current liberal government’s culture policy under Minister Nyssen has taken a markedly different position. Despite the inherent risk of damage and the substantial cost associated with transporting priceless artworks, Nyssen disagrees with keeping France’s national treasures in one place. Instead, she believes in sharing France’s cultural heritage. “My priority is to work against cultural segregation, and a large-scale plan for moving [the works] around is a main way of doing that,” Nyssen said.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether the Mona Lisa would travel outside of France’s borders. But Sylvain Robert, mayor of the Northern French city of Lens, wasted no time in launching a campaign to host the painting at Louvre-Lens, an offshoot of the Paris museum.

In the spirit of France’s new policy of culture sharing, French President Emmanuel Macron has already offered to loan the 1,000-year-old Bayeux Tapestry to Britain. The tapestry, which depicts events of the Norman conquest, will head to the UK in 2022 when the Bayeux Museum is scheduled for renovation.


By Henri Neuendorf, Reprint from Artnet, 2 March 2018, © 2018 Artnet Worldwide Corporation.

“South African Photographer David Goldblatt Honored by Centre Pompidou,” By Elena Martinique

“South African Photographer David Goldblatt Honored by Centre Pompidou”

By Elena Martinique


A key figure in the South African photographic scene and an iconic exponent of politically-committed documentary image-making, David Goldblatt has maintained his distinct and extraordinary tension between subject, territory, politics and representation for forty years. Rejecting the idea of photography being a weapon, he favors a photographic language that is simple, yet intense.

The work of this acclaimed South African photographer will soon be honored at the Center Pompidou in a large-scale retrospective. His first exhibition in France, it will feature over two hundred photographs and a hundred-odd previously unpublished documents, spanning the entire Goldblatt’s output, from lesser-known early works to his most recent photographs.

In addition, there will be a screening of seven short films specially made for the show, featuring Goldblatt providing insights into his works.

Left: David Goldblatt – At a meeting of the Voortrekkers in the suburb of Whitfield, Boksburg. June 1980, 1980 / Right: David Goldblatt – Particulars – Woman With Pierced Ear, 1975

Exploring the Complex History of South Africa

Unrestrictedly exploring his native country through photography since the 1960s, David Goldblatt has scrupulously examined its complex history, including the introduction of Apartheid, its development and demise. Focusing on specific places he knows well, he was able to find the most apposite form to express its complexity, never adopting already-existing photographic solutions.

Guided by his personal story and vision of life, his photographs are characterized by his belief in equality and tolerance and an understanding of people from other cultures and religions. These images reflect the social and political values of the individuals or social groups who build and live in them.

One of his most acclaimed series is Structures, where he explored the life of the small-scale Afrikaner farmers in the wake of Apartheid.

Left: David Goldblatt – On the corner of Commissioner and Eloff Streets, 1979 / Right: David Goldblatt – Shop assistant, Orlando West, 1972, 1972

Exhibition Highlights

Spanning his entire career, the exhibition includes some of his most celebrated bodies of work.

The selection includes series Particulars created in the 1970s that captures the lives of people in South Africa’s gold and platinum mines and in the townships and suburbs of Johannesburg; the series Some Afrikaners Photographed that explore the artist’s relationship with Afrikaners he has met in his father’s clothing shop in Randfontein; the series In Boksburg, where the artist captured everyday scenes in a legally white-only town on the eastern periphery of Johannesburg which was heavily dependent on black labor; the series The Transported of KwaNdebele from 1989 that talks about the workers of an apartheid tribal homeland for blacks, KwaNdebele; among others.

Left: David Goldblatt – Baby in its crib in a rooming house, Soper Road, Hillbrow, Johannesburg. March 1973 / Right: David Goldblatt – An office worker from Tsmeb on holiday, in a rooming house on Abel Road, Hillbrow, March 1973

David Goldblatt at Centre Pompidou

In 1985, the artist explained for De Arte magazine:

I think that photography is a medium that somehow enables me to relate to the world around me and relate the world around me to me.

The exhibition David Goldblatt will be on view at the Center Pompidou in Paris in Gallery 4 on level 1, from February 21st until May 7th, 2018. It is curated by Karolina Ziebinska-Lewandowska, photography department at the Musée national d’art modern. It will be accompanied by a catalog David Goldblatt: Structures of Dominion and Democracy created under the guidance of the exhibition curator.


Slideshow: David Goldblatt – A farmer’s son with his nursemaid, Heimweeberg, Nietverdiend, 1964; Wolwekraal-Marabastad route: In the hope of sleep, amny, after sitting down, cover their faces with cloths or rugs or caps; some try to cushion their heads, 1983; The dethroning of Cecil John Rhodes, after the throwing of human faeces on the statue and the agreement of the University to the demands of students for its removal. The University of Cape Town, 9 April 2015, 2015; The 1000 seat Sanlam Auditorium of the University of Johannesburg, destroyed by arson at 02:00 on 15 May 2016, 2016; Pedestrian bridge over the Cape Town-Johannesburg railway line in the village of Leeu Gamka (population about 2000). Apartheid law required that all public amenities had to be racially segregated. Accordingly, from about 1955, the people of Leeu Gamka crossed this bridge in two streams – “White” and “Non-White”. Since 1992 the apartheid laws and notice boards have gone but the steel divider remains. 30 August 2016, 2016; Marabastad-Waterval route: for most of the people in this bus, the cycle will start again tomorrow at between 2 and 3 am, 1984; Making a coffin for the body of a neighbour’s servant whose family could not afford one, Bootha Plots, Randfontein, 1962; Going to work, Mathysloop, KwaNdebele, 1984, 1984; Willie Bester’s sculpture of Sarah Baartman covered in cloth by students of the Rhodes Must Fall Movement. Main Library, University of Cape Town, 14 May 2016, 2016; Censorship of artworks by the management of the University of Cape Town: at left a drawing by Diane Victor has been covered to hide it; at right, where woodcuts by Cecil Skotnes hung, there are now empty spaces. Crated-over Diane Victor drawing. All images courtesy of Centre Pompidou.


By Elena Martinique, Reprint from Widewalls, 18 February 2018, © 2018 Widewalls.

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“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.