I was fascinated by the idea to see the exhibition “A soul of a Nation” dedicated to the struggle of the black community in America, the birth of the Black Panthers and the black art behind it.
Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power is a genuinely revelatory exhibition. It spans the period 1963 to 1983 and there are some 60 artists represented by 150 works; the vast majority of both will be largely unknown to British audiences.
In 1968, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King was assassinated. In the immediate aftermath, a wave of riots broke across America. Known as the Holy Week Uprising, this was a largely spontaneous outpouring of rage and sorrow. Far from the Movement collapsing, it marched forward with renewed fury and determination. To paraphrase Stokely Carmichael, what the crowds had started saying was “Black Power”, and they were to keep on saying it.
The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense formed in 1966 with the call for the “power to determine the destiny of our black community”. The Organisation of Black American Culture formed a year later with the same wish for black artists.
” The Ghetto itself is the Gallery for the Revolutionary Artist” – Emory Douglas.
For many Black artists in this period, a key questions was: where to present their art? Their works was excluded from nearly, all mainstream museums. Linked to this was another questions: which viewers should they address?
These two questions – which are by no means the same – get different answers all through this fantastically dynamic show.
The Spiral group in New York formed specifically to ask what black art could, or should, be. They did not gain as much purchase on the popular imagination as Warhol et al, but black artists nationwide were far from silent.
The show also draws attention to the many artists refused to engage with the established art scene, and instead chose to work with black-owned galleries and public programmes. For example, the ‘Wall of Respect’ in Chicago and the ‘Smokehouse’ wall paintings in Harlem, or work created for newspapers that supported the struggle.
It is not, however, an exhibition merely about racial politics – it examines, too, the notion of a “black aesthetic” and whether its practitioners saw themselves as black first and then as artists, or the other way round.
Potent, though more straightforward, like a slap in the face are Faith Ringgold’s American People Series #20: Die (1967), and United States of Attica (1971-2). The first shows a chaotic scene of black and white Americans shooting and stabbing each other in the street, even as white and black children cower and comfort one another: it is a scene of slaughter in which everyone is the victim and is clearly influenced by Picasso’s Guernica. The second is a map of the United States in red and green, the colours of Pan-Africanism, commemorating the deaths of 42 men – the majority black inmates – during the Attica Prison Riot for better conditions and political rights.
Not all Lewis and Ringgold’s successors had the same ability to mix the art and the message. Wadsworth Jarrell’s 1971 portrait of Malcolm X, Black Prince, for example, is comprised of brightly coloured letters spelling out one of the activist’s calls-to-arms. It is clever and packs a one-hit impact, but out of its own time it has the look of a hallucinogenic Jimi Hendrix album cover rather than a radical rallying-cry.
A soul of a nation is not just an exhibition, it’s a call for change again.
I left the exhibition uncomfortable with myself as white person, ashamed of the past history of white people and even more angry with all those racist morons out there.
I wish I could share
All the love that’s in my heart
Remove all the bars
That keep us apart
I wish you could know
What it means to be me
Then you’d see and agree
That every man should be free
As the magnificent Nina Simone would say.