Carolyn Lawrence’s 1972 piece is vibrant, eye catching and very simple to understand. Despite its aesthetic, characterised by rhythm and vividity. The simple, repeated slogan makes the political message quite clear. The suggested tragedy and suffering. The stolen childhood from those too young to have even done anything. The positive message to black children, that no child should ever have to hear.
Tate Modern’s Soul of Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, co-curated by Mark Godfrey and Zoe Whitley is powerful, informative and politically charged. The exhibition celebrates the hidden and in some cases forgotten work of black artists following the height of the Civil Rights Movements in 1963. Black power, political freedom, and disillusionment hover around the exhibition. The collection of 150 works from various Afro-American artists is a testimony to the curator’s expansive search for capturing the struggle in defining and understanding ‘Black Art’ or ‘Black Aesthetics’ during 1963-1983.
Interestingly, the exhibition includes works from artists that are not black but have works which look at the colour black in a range of ways. From the interpretation of black bodies to black power, works from Andy Warhol and Alice Neel, shows us how they see and portray others with the use of pop art and emotional intensity.
The 12 rooms represent different organised groups or similar types of works with the same stance and type of art. The Soul of Nation, made up by these twelve groups shows the dissonance within the black community. The contradictions throughout the exhibition are overwhelming. The self-realisation, confusion and problem solving is evident. The only somewhat guaranteed reoccurring theme is race and the confirmation that there has never been a single black experience. The recovery of these unjustly ignored works in American history, that influenced changes in art was long overdue.
You don’t need to know much about the works and artists to see the intersectionality presented through the art in the various rooms despite the difference in technique, artistic approaches, and influences. However, it is important to note that a few of the works and artists included in the exhibition are not part of any “movement”. Some have even distanced themselves and their art is solely included due to its creation in that time period, reinforcing the exhibition’s lack of cohesion.
Some of the works highlight answers and routes taken to answer a complex and important question. How to reach these audiences during a period when art like everything else had racial inequality? AFRICOBRA artists took to making affordable posters for mass production. Emory Douglas, former minster of culture for the Black Panthers whose work is included in Art on the streets. Once said, “The ghetto itself is the gallery”. The many murals and paintings in the community, the inner cities like New York and Chicago. Lorraine O’ Grady’s “Art Is. . .”, during Harlem’s African-American Day Parade, 1983. Letting the community see themselves as art, “That’s right, that’s what art is, we’re the art”. The beauty and strength in some of these works are in the clear and visibly knowledge that they drew from their communities – the political, social and cultural turmoil at the time, real life events and the overall audience.
Soul of a Nation really shows the struggle in defining what is considered as Art, alongside what is considered as ‘Black’. Yes, the exhibition is centered on race but it is so much more than that. It is power, knowledge, dialogue, experience, life, discovery and self-realisation. The “Soul” that upholds the nation is history, perseverance, collaboration, struggle, versatility and celebration of difference and technique.
Soul of A nation is a must see exhibition, it runs until 22 October at Tate Modern, London . As Zoe Whitley says, the show is “timely — but it’s been a long time coming”.