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Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power at Tate Modern

July 22, 2017

ArtsMixed Media | by Harry Seymour


A new exhibition at Tate Modern entitled; Soul of a Nation aims to explore the history of black American art in the 60s and 70s. The show runs with themes of tragedy, violence and suffering, alongside solidarity, power and perseverance. It starts in 1963 with Martin Luther King’s speech to 200,000 people in Washington that immortalised the words ‘I had a dream’. It was at this time a collective of black American artists, called Spiral started making work to reflect the shifting cultural mood. As that mood turned to disillusion, their art reflected this paradigm. One of the key turning points was the murder of Luther King in 1969.

Curtain of sorrow … April 4, by Sam Gilliam. Photograph: David Kordansky Gallery.

A 1969 work by Sam Gilliam, which was painted to commemorate the first anniversary of Luther King’s murder, is one of the most powerful paintings in the show – it falls down the wall like a curtain of purple sorrow and without even knowing the subject of the work it is striking in it’s consciousness. Sam Gilliam is an artist who has only recently started to gain the reputation he deserves, among names like Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschesnberg who are the most celebrated of this generation (and happen (?) to be white males). Part of a movement known as ‘Colour Field’, his work was until recently viewed as an less successful afterthought of Abstract Expressionism. And justly, Gilliam isn’t the only talented artist whose importance is reinstated by the show. Barley Hendricks’ potent portraits are another star of the show (also featuring on the front of the show’s accompanying literature). Sadly Hendricks died in April of this year so never got to see the exhibition come to fruition. They show 1970’s American men in that looks straight from the streets of the Bronx. Equally humorous and sad, they are full of complex narrative and incredibly witty.

Texas Louise by Frank Bowling, 1971. Photograph: Hales Gallery.

Work by Frank Bowling, the Guyana-born painter who travelled to American in the 60’s, is another stand out of the show. Bowling’s 1971 painting Texas Louise is a warm desert expanse that envelops you in thick, sticky colour and chokes your throat with humidity. Almost seven metres wide, it’s the sort of work that typifies the art of the early 1970’s, which until now has seemed rather ‘uncool’ and lacking substance. Other highlights include the junk sculptures of Noah Purifoy and Betye Saar that are like alters of the black American experience, constructing found objects in to poetry. At the ripe old age of 90, Saar is still alive, and finally getting the museum space she deserves, alongside her white, male peers and contemporaries.

Magical … Eye, by Betye Saar. Photograph: Robert Wedemeyer/Tate.

In order to produce a tight and informative show, curators by Mark God frey and Zoe Whitley have included important contemporary ephemera such as Black Panther magazines from the age of Malcolm X. Their history-led approach feels refreshing and, more crucially, justified. The show enlarges the view of black American art from the 60s to the 80s, without pigeon holing anyone, or thing.

Benny Andrews’ ‘Did the Bear Sit Under the Tree’ (1969) © Estate of Benny Andrews/DACS.

It elucidates the boundaries of race through the experiential, and explores how black modernism has its own place both equally alongside, and integral to, the story of American late 20th century art. A photograph of John Coltrane in the exhibition acts as a stark reminder that even white American modernism was inspired by African American music – Jackson Pollock was inspired by jazz music to splatter paint for the first time, with each mark left on the canvas being representative of an uncontrollable and immediate force. Soul of a Nation takes this notion one step further and highlights how artist’s used colour to explore their own identify in a time of important reflection.

Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power at Tate Modern, until 22 October, 2017.