Art in the Age of Black Power
"The exhibition cleverly showcases this debate between figuration and abstraction, with the highlight undoubtedly its ‘Homage to Malcolm’ by Jack Whitten"
At a time when race and identity became the explosive issue of 1960s America, both on the streets and through the nation’s cultural identity, black artists suddenly found themselves at the vanguard of artistic and social change.
Brought suddenly to public attention by such iconic figures as Aretha Franklin, Muhammad Ali and Toni Morrison, ‘Black Art’ became defined and debated across the country via its vibrant paintings, photographs, prints and sculptures.
At a landmark exhibition which launches this month at the Tate Modern in London, these extraordinary works of art – many on display in the UK for the first time – are brought together and displayed in a vivid and timely evocation of how something as simple as a painting can forever change the world of those drawn to its visual voice.
Louise Cunningham takes a sneak preview at this summer’s must-see art event.
So just what did it mean, creatively and inspirationally, to be a black artist in the States during the seismic upheavals of both the 1960s Civil Rights Movement and hand-in-hand rise of Black Power? During this heady period of social change, when it seemed as if the very fabric of American society was being torn apart, what suddenly became the purpose of art and who, as importantly, was its audience? ‘Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power’ attempts to explore how these issues played out among those African American artists who rose to prominence during this landmark era. At a time when American cultural identity was reshaped against a backdrop of civil unrest and political upheaval, art became its most powerful arbiter of change. The exhibition itself kicks off in 1963 with the formation of the Spiral Group, a New York-based collective which questioned how black artists should relate to American society, with key figures like Romare Bearden and Norman Lewis responding to current events via their photo montages and abstract paintings. In a breathtaking departure from the norm, artists themselves also began to consider the locations and audiences they wanted their art to reach, from local murals to nationally circulated posters, with many turning away from exhibiting in mainstream galleries to instead display their art in their own communities through black-owned galleries and artist-curated shows.
Evocatively, the exhibition uses archive photographs and documentary material to illustrate the mural movement, including Chicago’s ‘Wall of Respect’ and the ‘Smokehouse’ wall paintings of Harlem. The way artists engaged directly with street activism is also explored through posters and newspapers, such as the work of the Black Panther Party’s ‘Culture’ Minister Emory Douglas who so brilliantly declared “The ghetto itself is the gallery”.
The call for Black Power initiated powerful and inspiring images of political giants such as Malcolm X and Angela Davis and even works of radical abstraction invoking Martin Luther King’s legacy. The exhibition cleverly showcases this debate between figuration and abstraction, with the highlight undoubtedly its ‘Homage to Malcolm’ by Jack Whitten, who was awarded the National Medal of Arts by Barack Obama in 2015. This work is on public display for the very first time.
Of course, away from the obvious New York ‘names’, artists across the whole United States took up arms so to speak in the Black Art debate. In Chicago during the late 1960s for instance, Jeff Donaldson, Wadsworth Jarrell, Nelson Stevens and Gerald Williams formed ‘AfriCOBRA’, devising a specific manifesto for Black Art during this period. Indeed, their striking work offered a unique aesthetic that combined bright colours, texts and images in dynamic ways. Meanwhile in Los Angeles, the Watts Rebellion of 1965 had a direct impact on the art produced there, with many artists calling attention to the politics of a divided city.
Constructions by Noah Purifoy made use of debris found on the streets of Watts, while the work of Charles White and David Hammons responded to current events such as the restraining of Bobby Seale at his trial. However, the exhibition doesn’t just limit itself to the political struggle, but also investigates the emergence of Black Feminism through the work of Betye Saar and Kay Brown. A brilliant, thought-provoking exposition of just how powerful – in very everyday terms – the use of a brush, pen, chord or pair of hands can be, this is an exhibition that deserves to be revisited again and again.
Soul of a Nation: Art in The Age of Black Power opens at Tate Modern (Level 3, Boiler House) on 12 July and runs until 22 October.
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