Record of resistance

Christina Black went to see: Soul of a nation - art in the age of black power Tate Modern, Bankside, London SE1. Ends October 22

Barkley Hendricks, ‘Icon for my superman’ (1969)

As you enter the ‘Soul of a nation’ exhibition, you are greeted by television screens showing Martin Luther King speaking to the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom - the “I have a dream” speech permeates the ambiance of the first room of the show. The introduction to the exhibition asks, among other questions, is there such a thing as ‘black art’ or a ‘black aesthetic’?

Each of the 12 rooms is devoted to different movements, cities, themes and ideas. Throughout each, the answer to the above questions seemed to be ‘yes’ - at least for the purposes of this exhibition. As a collection of work, it overwhelmingly has impact because of the overt African-American aesthetic, which is integral to the political content.

That is not to take the view that all art must serve a social or political function. There is a plethora of bad art, music, poetry, etc, courtesy of well-meaning lefties, as evidence to the contrary. However, this show brings together work created in America by black artists in the 1960s and 70s, responding to the political conditions of the time. This takes a diversity of forms - celebrating black culture and black identity, as well as resistance and fightback. The exhibition covers around 20 years of African-American art from 1963 onward. Most of the artists do not usually grace the walls of the Tate or are as well known as their more whimsical contemporaries, such as Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenburg or Andy Warhol (the latter does have a cameo appearance in the ‘Black heroes’ room with his painting of Mohammed Ali). This, in itself, is a damning cultural indictment of the lack of recognition of black artists during this period.

To complement the exhibition, the curators have put together a well-thought-through Spotify playlist, with separate tracks for each room. This can be accessed via your mobile and listened to as you wander round - or later at home. Artists include John Coltrane, Gil Scott-Heron, Duke Ellington, Aretha Franklin, Sly and the Family Stone and Marvin Gaye. It is a nice touch that adds to the experience.

Room one begins in early-1963 New York with the Spiral Group, which formed as an artists collective in response to the March on Washington. The purpose of the group was to discuss what black art could or should be at this juncture in American politics. The work is entirely black and white. Reginald Gammon’s Freedom now (1965) shows a coarsely blocked-in painting of marchers - the composition is cropped, showing a mix of heads, feet and placards coming towards the viewer, putting them in a situation of potential conflict. Norman Lewis’s Processional is an abstract black canvas with a growing shaft of white brushstrokes across the centre. The expressive marks suggest figures moving in growing numbers.

Room two, ‘Art on the streets’, moves out of the gallery and into the ghetto, to look at how black artists mobilised in their communities. Obac (Organization of Black American Culture) was formed in Chicago’s South Side in 67. It produced murals, such as the Wall of respect, featuring black writers, sports stars, political leaders and musicians. The area became a space where communities would gather for musical performances and readings, inspiring similar murals across America.

In 1966 the Black Panther Party formed. Emory Douglas, a young artist, was appointed the party’s ‘minister of culture’ and produced stunning front- and back-page artwork for the BPP newspaper. There are many examples of this work on show that exemplify the revolutionary aesthetic of graphic design, with bold use of line, shape and colour - and they also have emotive qualities in their depictions of struggles and victories, that act as a call to arms.

Other artists looked at the impact of the struggle on people’s lives. Faith Ringgold, who was originally denied membership of the Spiral Group, developed her own style, called ‘superrealism’. In her chaotic painting, The American people series, she depicts a riot. People are fighting each other, though it is hard to interpret who is attacking whom. The painting is a response to the mainstream media’s coverage of the rioting, which focussed on the destruction of property, but not on the lives of those caught up in it. Boston-based Dana Chandler’s Fred Hampton’s door shows the lime-green entrance to the home of the young Black Panther activist murdered by police in his bed - they shot him through his door. Prints of this piece were reproduced and distributed by the Black Panther Party as a reminder to the black community of the extent of police brutality.

Provocative

One of the most overtly provocative artists in the exhibit is Beyte Saar, whose work features in two rooms. Saar created artwork by assembling racist material and presenting it in a way that exemplifies black defiance. Sambo’s banjo portrays the case of a musical instrument, featuring Sambo’s grinning face on the outside. But on the inside is a miniature double lynching. There is also a miniature rifle for Sambo to use to liberate himself, should he choose to.

Another piece of Saar’s on display, which follows the same theme, is I’ve got rhythm. This shows a figure attached to the moving piece of a metronome, and a newspaper featuring the death by lynching of a black man, who had refused to dance at a white’s command. Another of the more striking pieces (and there is a lot of competition) is David Hammond’s Injustice case (1970). This is a body print depicting Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale, who was bound and gagged during his trial. The print, made using the artist’s body, grease and pigment, is framed in a cut-up US flag. The act of damaging the flag, of course, is a crime in the US.

The exhibition takes a more up-beat turn in the AfroCobra (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists) room. Some of the images are of everyday people, and others of political leaders, such as Malcolm X, whom the artists admired. The work is full of rhythm and colour, but with text incorporated into the images to give political grounding to the work. The aesthetic is that of 60s psychedelic pop posters, which I am not overly drawn to, but the celebratory, uplifting images help to punctuate the mood of the exhibition.

The ‘East Coast abstracts’ room calls into question the notion of the ‘black aesthetic’. There is nothing especially ‘black’ about the images. They look, at face value, indistinguishable from ‘white’ abstract painting. There are strong influences evident from white abstract expressionists, such as Pollock and Rothko, in terms of processes and technique. Only on reading the titles of the work do we discover a link to black culture. William T Williams’ Trane makes reference to jazz saxophonist John Coltrane (aka ‘Trane’) and the hard-edged composition evokes the jarring free jazz rhythm. It also emphasises the role that African-American music has had on the visual arts, including the work of white artists, such as Piet Mondrian, whose compositions were inspired by and reflected the New York ‘boogie-woogie’ scene in the 1940s.

Other works in the room pay homage to assassinated political leaders. Sam Gilliam’s April 4th is an abstract piece commemorating the death of Martin Luther King, in the style of Marc Rothko (though personally I find Rothko’s abstractions more powerfully moving). The artist knotted the canvas and stained it in colour. The curators suggest the dots of crimson may represent blood stains, which seems perfectly feasible. There was criticism from other black artists at the time, that these artists’ work did not connect to the lives of black people in America - though the work is aesthetically the same as white abstract expressionism, it arguably engages more with Afro-American culture, and therefore African-American audiences. through its subject matter.

The most engaging work in the room, Black heroes, is by painter Barkley Hendricks. The image Icon for my superman (Superman never saved any black people - Bobby Seale) is used by the Tate in its promotional material. This is a self-portrait of the artist in a Superman T-shirt with no briefs. There is a tongue-in-cheek aspect to his work - when a critic referred to Hendricks’ painting as “brilliantly endowed”, he responded by painting a full-figure nude of himself with the same title. The images are quite suave. Hendricks stated that he “wasn’t ever interested in speaking for all black folks ... my work was to be as good a painter as I could be”. While the content is arguably flippant, with such titles as the aforementioned quote from the BPP co-founder or referencing Marvin Gaye’s What’s going on? (initially a response from the musician to the hatred, suffering and injustice seen from the point of view of a Vietnam vet), they are not devoid of social commentary.

Holistically, the exhibition works. It is well curated, with lots of information that grounds the work socially and politically, as well as artistically. There is an abundance of imagery that compels you to come back to look and look again. There is also a lot of additional information, video footage, etc on the exhibition’s webpage that adds richness to the curation, should you wish to further research the artists or movements.

Having seen quite a lot of underwhelming exhibitions this year, I think ‘Soul of a nation’ could be one of the stand-out shows of 2017.