Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power (Review)

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Frankie Chappell is a member of TEDxUCLWomen’s Curation team. She is currently working for UCL’s Widening Participation Office, doing research and activities around supporting young people from disadvantaged backgrounds into university. She studied Ancient History at UCL, focusing mostly on the ancient Near East. Her interests include history, education, museums and everything in between.

Emma Amos Eva the Babysitter 1973 (Tate.org.uk)

The Soul of a Nation exhibition at the Tate Modern brings together art from the era of Black Power and the Civil Rights Movement, and forms itself around a series of questions that artists faced in those unstable times. Outside the doors of the exhibition, screens play well-known clips of Angela Davis, Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael, James Baldwin and Malcolm X; thereby setting the scene of the discourse behind civil imbalance. The first display kicks off in 1963, a pivotal point in the struggle for civil rights, and takes you through a mix of thematically and chronologically ordered rooms.

The Black Heroes room houses the face of the exhibition: Icon for My Man Superman (Superman never saved any black people — Bobby Seale) by Barkley Hendricks (who died this year). It hangs next to the strikingly two-toned What’s Going On. Neither of these, however, grabbed as much attention (albeit mostly bashful glances from at least a foot away) as Brilliantly Endowed – a self-portrait of the artist nude, bar shoes and a hat, coolly gazing into the camera. Heroes in this room have not just been taken to mean fame or bravery in the usual glorious way, but also people like Eva the Babysitter (by Emma Amos) who, by looking after her child, allowed Amos to continue her work. In this way, the room brings together many themes from the whole exhibition – especially the truthful depiction of black people as individuals at a time when they were reduced to victims, the enemy, or simply one side of an argument.

Betye Saar Eye 1972 (Tate.org.uk)

At a couple of points in the exhibition, the pieces on display grow bigger in scale and more abstract; addressing the question of whether non-figurative works can represent and address the social issues which had (and still have) an impact on the lives of black people. The pieces change from depictions of people and actions, to symbols and shapes. A particularly striking example is a large floating triangular work, engraved with grooves made by an Afro-comb, a tribute to Malcolm X which steers the eye away from the splashes of colour throughout the room it stands in. Further along, the chunky chains of Melvin Edwards’s Curtain (for William and Peter) hang indomitably, casting a haunting shadow against the wall and taking the concept of abstract art off of the canvas altogether.

Female artists feature prominently across the displays. Betye Saar’s pieces inspired by ancestral connections occupy a space of their own, tied together by earthy materials and symbols. In the AfriCOBRA room, Barbara Jones Hogu’s work blasts colour into the human form, against backgrounds of messages of black unity. As a free accompaniment to the displays, Solange Knowles has created an interactive response to the exhibition using poetry, images and concepts from her album A Seat at the Table to explore identity and black womanhood. 

The exhibition manages to present art from this era in a way which refuses to box the artists in from any side. Each room’s theme provides the necessary context which enables visitors to build knowledge of the artist. However, the information is not so didactic as to prevent the art from being interpreted freely without the ties of contextual and societal responsibility. No one voice is made to speak for all black artists, or all black people, but all the works reflect in their own way on themes of identity, belonging, unity and heritage that permeated people’s lives during this particular era of instability. The full range of style and material is covered, and the stories of the people take centre stage. Even the accompanying shop has a wide-ranging nature, rather than just providing books by or about the artists, there was an even bigger focus on contextual thought, with black writers, black feminist writers and black philosophers prevalent. The exhibition and its accompanying element end up being a lesson on modern history, art history, and black political and philosophical thought – all in one corner of the Tate.

Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power is open at the Tate Modern until 22nd October.

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