In the seventeen plus years that Tate Modern has been open I don't think I've ever visited an exhibition as well attended as their recent Soul of a Nation:Art in the Age of Black Power. I visited, with my friends Mark and Natalie, the Friday before the exhibition closed and every single room was full of people, often passionately discussing both the art and the issues addressed by the art. When we finally left just before 8pm there was still a queue of a couple of hundred people waiting to go in.
The fact many of those people were 'of colour' was important too. Art galleries can be pretty white places (as observed on a recent visit to the Royal Academy), hardly in keeping with the make-up of a truly multicultural city like London, and anything that's been done to widen both the appeal and the demographic can only be applauded. What with the advent of Trump, and the rise of the far right in America, and elsewhere, this exhibition, very clearly, arrived just when it was needed.
Which was great for the gallery, and great for us visitors, if very worrying for the future of the world. Assuming we're not all annihilated in a nuclear war (Trump seems like the sort of man that if he was to go down would take us all with him) the great success of this exhibition should ensure braver curatorship and more diversity, at least in the art world, in the coming years.
Reginald Gammon - Freedom Now (1963)
One of the many terrifying things about Trump's America is the fact that the KKK now seem to be less marginal figures than they've been in decades. The first painting to catch your eye as you walk into the first room of the exhibition is Norman Lewis's America the Beautiful. From a distance it looks like an abstract expressionist work worthy of Clyfford Still or Robert Motherwell. It's only on closer inspection that the grim reality comes into view. These aren't daubs open to interpretation but klansmen marching in their hoods, burning crosses in hands, off to do something both unspeakably inhuman and unspeakably inhumane. The blood of African Americans runs through this exhibition as freely as the paint leaves the brush. This is not a sanitised look at black American history.
Lewis, as befits his work, was for the most part a maker of beautiful, colourful abstract work but, inspired by the Civil Rights Movement (and horrified by the racism that movement brought out in others), he took time out to paint this quietly powerful, sinister indictment of what lies beneath in the land of the free. Painted in 1960, five years later it was shown (along with works by Reginald Gammon and Romare Bearden) as part of the New York based Spiral group's only show.
Spiral had been formed in the Big Apple in 1963 just before the March on Washington which saw Martin Luther King Jr deliver his I Have A Dream speech to a quarter of a million civil rights supporters from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. They may have mounted only one single, purely black'n'white, exhibition but, in their determination to take control of the way their works were exhibited, exhibit together fraternally, and to boldly explore different methods to provoke and ask questions, they inspired many other black artists across the country to put their minds, and their media, behind the struggle for equal rights.
Norman Lewis - America the Beautiful (1960)
Romare Bearden - The Dove (1964)
Their hand had been forced. Many Black artists were excluded from nearly all mainstream museums at the time. The Organisation of Black American Culture (OBAC) formed in Chicago in 1967 and their solution was to create The Wall of Respect, an outdoor mural, in the city's South Side. The Wall featured images of iconic black figures from sports stars and musicians to writers and civil rights leaders. There's a slide show of some of the fabulous work that was created for it and, alongside it, a vitrine featuring copies of the Black Panther newspaper which was founded (also in 1967) by Huey P Newton and Bobby Seale.
The Black Panthers themselves had formed a year earlier in Oakland, California with a ten point platform that demanded, amongst other things, improved housing and education, an end to police brutality, and black male exemption from all military service. They launched a free breakfast programme and a health clinic for needy locals and their paper was launched with Emory Douglas, the party's Minister of Culture, its chief designer.
Jeff Donaldson - Study for the Wall of Respect (Miles Davis) (1967)
Cliff Joseph - Blackboard (1969)
In 1965 Harlem the poet, playwright, and cultural commentator Amiri Baraka (who'd changed his name from LeRoi Jones following the assassination of Malcolm X earlier that year) founded the Black Arts Repertory Theater/School and, with writer Larry Neal, outlined the aims of the Black Arts Movement, declaring that black writers, musicians, and artists should make art that 'speaks directly to the needs and aspirations of Black America'. Baraka's poem SOS was painted on the side of The Wall of Respect.
Elsewhere in Harlem, Melvin Edwards, William T Williams, Guy Ciarcia, and Billy Rose had formed the Smokehouse Associates. They were taking a more indirect approach to improving life in the poorer areas of New York. They hoped that by filling Harlem with abstract wall paintings and sculptures that they could bring about 'actual change'. That if people saw their environment differently they'd behave differently within it.
Clifford Joseph had the sense to see that if children didn't have any black role models they'd be in real danger of growing up in a country that seemed to have no role for them. He invented a 'black ABC' which referenced black American figures like Malcolm X and Nat Turner (a slave rebellion leader in 1830s Virginia) as well as prominent world stars like Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba and the Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji. As well as showing in galleries he took his painting round schools in the New York area getting kids to engage with it.
But for the white establishment it was a slow, and still ongoing, process of change. In 1969 the Metropolitan Museum in New York opened its Harlem on my Mind exhibition which claimed to represent the neighbourhood whilst, remarkably, not inviting a single African American artist living there to show their work. In response to this Cliff Joseph and Benny Andrews formed the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC) that campaigned, in much the same way the Guerrilla Girls do now for female artists, for better representation of black artists in American museum collections and exhibition programmes. Judging by the fact that the two most well known artists in this entire exhibition, Andy Warhol and Alice Neel, are both white it seems, sadly, that they still have much work to do.
Archibald Motley - The First One Hundred Years:He Amongst You Who is Without Sin Shall Cast the First Stone:Forgive Them Father For They Know Now What They Do (c.1963-1972)
One of the most shocking pieces in the whole exhibition is Archibald Motley's The First One Hundred Years. It took Motley nearly ten years to 'perfect' his nightmarish vision of a dystopian America featuring Confederate flags, a hooded Klansman, and some very strange fruit indeed hanging from the denuded branches of an almost post-nuclear winter tree. Satan fraternises with the dove of peace, the faces of JFK and Martin Luther King (both gunned down during the making of the painting) stare blankly from the tree, as all the while burning crosses illuminate the whole sorry scene. It's Hieronymus Bosch at the home of the brave, Guernica over Gettysburg, if the American Dream could become a nightmare then Motley was the man who had painted it. Motley lived until 1981 but he never painted again in his entire life.
If his work was done, Stokely Carmichael's was just beginning. In 1966 the future 'honorary prime minister' of the Black Panther Movement made the 'Black Power' rallying cry (co-opting author Richard Wright's term for political usage for what's believed to be the first time) during a speech at the Mississippi March Against Fear. It was a refusal to be cowed by the racist violence that sought to curb the advances demanded by the civil rights movement. Soon the raised fist became the emblem of 'Black Power' and two years later at the medal ceremony for the 200 metres at the Mexico Olympics Tommie Smith and John Carlos famously raised their fists to show their support for the struggle. White Australian silver medallist Peter Norman wore a badge to show solidarity with Smith and Carlos.
Faith Ringgold - American People Series ~20:Die (1967)
Dana C. Chandler - Fred Hampton's Door 2 (1975)
The message was clear. Yet the murder continued. Fred Hampton was a revolutionary leader and community activist in Chicago. Despite his youth he served as the Deputy Chairman of the Black Panther Party but in 1969, when he was still only 21, a murderous police raid ended his life. His funeral attracted 5,000 mourners and his death caused predictable, and righteous, outrage. It also inspired Dana Chandler, who'd been attracted to the Black Power movement after he'd seen police use violence to bust up a peaceful Civil Rights protest in Boston two years earlier, to make his chilling tribute to Hampton. Initially Chandler had made a painting of a door but when that was stolen he remade the work using an actual door. The bullet holes tell their own chilling story.
Benny Andrews - Did the Bear Sit Under the Tree? (1969)
Melvin Andrews - Lynch Fragments:Some Bright Morning (1963)
Melvin Andrews - Lynch Fragments:Afro-Phoenix #2 (1963)
Melvin Andrews - Lynch Fragments:Mamba (1965)
As do Melvin Lynch's grisly looking Lynch Fragments. They were begun a year after the murder of Nation of Islam member Ronald Stokes by the LAPD and although, on one hand, they evoke the shameful history of lynching they also, conversely, relate to the strength and the fighting back. Afro-Phoenix, for example, draws from the myth of that famous bird's rebirth.
Other Los Angeles artists were creating by recycling and mixing assorted items. The city, not for the last time, was experiencing great racial tension. In 1962 police had shot a Nation of Islam member in a mosque. Two years later further police violence triggered the Watts Rebellion which ended with shops and houses in ruins and thirty four people dead.
Artists like John Outterbridge, Noah Purifoy, and Betye Saar sought to address this with their art, their assemblage. Purifoy had said "West Coast Black art stands in direct opposition to art for art's sake. It insists that if art is not for the sake of something it is not art". Outterbridge made a tribute to Martin Luther King by mixing together a suit reminiscent of the style King preferred, banners naming the sites of the most famous marches he'd led, and a cropped photograph of Coretta Scott King at her husband's funeral.
Betye Saar co-opted gaudy novelty items featuring racial stereotyping and turned them into art. Sambo's Banjo case opens up to reveal the scene of a violent double lynching taking place in front of a group of calm white onlookers. Aunt Jemima was the nation's most recognised 'Southern mammy' at the time and used to advertise pancake mix. In many ways she was an icon of docile servitude but by placing her amongst the radical imagery of weapons, raised fists, and African textiles Saar elevated her from a position of drudgery to that of power. It was as subtle a subversion as Motley's message was blatant but it was no less powerful. This was a war that needed to be waged on many fronts.
John Outterbridge - About Martin (1975)
Betye Saar - Sambo's Banjo (1971-1972)
Betye Saar - The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972)
Noah Purifoy - Watts Riot (1966)
In pure artistic terms my very favourite things in the show were the works of the AfriCOBRA group, and particularly Wadsworth Jarrell, in Chicago. The question they asked was could they 'sacrifice the wants of self and ego to create the needed positive visual images of our people?' and the answer they gave was "Yes. We can". Words that were echoed later by a community organiser from the Windy City who went on to become the first black president of the United States.
Jarrell's portraits of Malcolm X, Huey Newton, and Bobby Seale look back to Gustav Klimt (and seem to have served as something of an inspiration to the brilliant Chris Ofili). Excerpts of X's speeches hang round his neck in the bright colour of Kool-Aid drinks. Jeff Donaldson bestows dignity and class upon the black experience, Gerald Williams considers the building of a black nation, and Carolyn Lawrence's work is, quite simply, groovy as fuck. The AfriCOBRA room alone, like many at the Tate, would make a fine standalone exhibition.
Wadsworth Jarrell - Black Prince (1971)
Wadsworth Jarrell - Liberation Soldiers (1972)
Jeff Donaldson - Wives of Sango (1971)
Carolyn Lawrence - Black Children Keep Your Spirits Free (1972)
Gerald Williams - Nation Time (1970)
Charles White and David Hammons may've lacked the colour of the AfriCOBRA artists but the very different path they'd taken proved no less fruitful. Hammons, in 1968, had started making body prints, coating himself in vegetable fat and pressing his body onto printing paper before applying pigment to reveal the image saturated into the surface. His Injustice Case refers to Bobby Seale's trial for conspiracy to incite violence, alongside Yippie Abbie Hoffman, at the Chicago Democratic Convention. During the case Seale was prevented from having the lawyer of his choice present and was bound and gagged in the courtroom on the order of Judge Julius Hoffman (presumably no relation).
Charles White adapted the style of Civil War era Wanted posters to show how the value of black lives had, historically in America, been tied to labour and productivity. How the black man had become a thing to be owned and operated or, indeed, bound and gagged.
Charles White - Wanted Poster No.5 (1969)
David Hammons - Injustice Case (1970)
Sam Gilliam felt his 'non-narrative media-oriented kind of painting' represented blackness just as well as the figurative works of Hammons and White. On the East Coast, in New York and Washington DC, a group of ex-Yale students had become aware of, and influenced by, both the abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko and the jazz music of John Coltrane and Miles Davis. They took some stick from some of the more politicised black artists but their work has stood the test of time and to show a true picture of the era their inclusion here feels important.
William T Willams even named his work for the recently deceased hard bop saxophonist. He aimed to capture the cascades of sounds in Trane's performances in visual form. Gilliam named his gauzy acrylic after the date that Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, Alabama born Jack Whitten used an Afro-comb to manipulate layers of black paint in his triangular tribute to Malcolm X (it was triangular because triangles are strong (like X) and because Malcolm had visited the pyramids), and Ed Clark, part of the second generation of abstract expressionists, was the first American artist to experiment with irregularly shaped canvases.
William T. Williams - Trane (1969)
Virginia Jaramillo - Untitled (1971)
Sam Gilliam - April 4 (1969)
Ed Clark - Yenom (#9) - 1970
Jack Whitten - Homage to Malcolm (1970)
Frank Bowling - Middle Passage (1970)
Frank Bowling was born in the former colony of British Guiana. His beautifully coloured collage tells a not so beautiful story. Middle Passage refers to the, often lethal, journey across the Atlantic from Africa taken by those who'd been forced into slavery. As well as including photos of his family, his mother's store, and newly independent, and renamed, Guyana he took from the Dutch abstract artist Piet Mondrian.
More straightforward, but no less impressive, portraiture came from the likes of Emma Amos, Alice Neel, and Beauford Delaney. OBAC had said that 'a Black Hero is any person who honestly reflects the beauty of Black life and genius in his or her style, does not forget his Black brothers and sisters who are less fortunate, does what he does in such an outstanding manner that he or she cannot be imitated or replaced' and it'd be a very brave man to suggest that Muhammad Ali does not fit that criteria.
With Warhol's portrait of Ali, Raymond Saunders' of Jack Johnson, and Alice Neel's of Faith Ringgold prominent black people were finally being afforded the same status as prominent white people. Emma Amos, admirably, painted her babysitter with the exact same dignity as Ali or Ringgold and if Delaney's portrait of the gay writer James Baldwin is said to actually be of someone else it doesn't matter that much, it's a nice painting!
Emma Amos - Eva the Babysitter (1973)
Beauford Delaney - Portrait of James Baldwin? (1971)
Andy Warhol - Muhammad Ali (1978)
Raymond Saunders - Jack Johnson (1971)
Barkley Hendricks went one step further and made himself the star of his paintings. In Icon for My Man Superman he aligns himself with Bobby Seale who said 'Superman never saved any black people' while at the same time showing that the black artist can't wait to be invited into the insular art world but must break into it like a superhero.
In What's Going On Hendricks riffs on Marvin Gaye's ground breaking album of three years earlier although it looks more like a cross between a Chic album cover and Manet's Le dejeuner sur l'herbe. If the female nudity seems somewhat gratuitous Hendricks provides what special interest magazines used to headline 'one for the ladies' too. In Icon for My Man Superman he's got no strides on but in Brilliantly Endowed he's gone one further, proudly displaying his penis and athletic torso for all to admire. The title's not as boastful as it first appears though. Hendricks was taking a swipe at New York Times critic Hilton Kramer who'd described him, somewhat problematically, as 'a brilliantly endowed painter'. In some ways Hendricks gets to have his cake and eat it. "How dare you say I have a large penis? Although I do, as it happens, have a reasonably impressive penis".
Barkley Hendricks - Icon for My Man Superman (Superman Never Saved any Black People - Bobby Seale) (1969)
Barkley Hendricks - What's Going On (1974)
Barkley Hendricks - Brilliantly Endowed (Self-Portrait) (1977)
Alice Neel - Faith Ringgold (1977)
As black figurative artists were getting bolder with their portraiture the abstract artists, too, were pushing boundaries again. Sam Gilliam (in Carousel Change) removed the canvas from its stretcher and knotted it so that it would hang differently depending on the gallery it was in, Jack Whitten used a rake to move the paint around, Joe Overstreet painted backdrops for eccentric jazz genius and pioneer of Afrofuturism Sun Ra, Alvin Loving cut up and collaged old paintings (that he felt were no longer relevant to the struggle) and then introduced leather and fur to them, and Melvin Edwards used barbed wire and chains to evoke the days of slavery gone by as much as the days of mass incarceration still, both then and now, very much part of the black American experience.
Alma Thomas was in 1972, at the age of 80, the first African American woman to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in Lower Manhattan. She'd become as fascinated with NASA and the space age as she had once been with the Civil Rights movement. Frank Bowling, as we saw earlier, had looked at the forced expatriation of Africans into slavery and was now imagining the whole world as a fluid, almost spectral, place. At a time when many African Americans were looking to Africa as the mother continent, Bowling was beginning to see everyone, simply, as citizens of the world free to travel, live, and love wherever they like. In Texas Louise the borders are, almost literally, evaporating.
Alma Thomas - Mars Dust (1972)
Jack Whitten - Asa's Palace (1973)
Frank Bowling - Texas Louise (1971)
Sam Gilliam - Carousel Change (1970)
Melvin Edwards - Curtain (for William and Peter) (1969)
Alvin Loving - Untitled (1973)
Joe Overstreet - We Came from There to Get Here (1970)
Betye Saar is the only artist to be given a room completely to herself. Her early reimagining of racist stereotypes as totems of power had given way to a more conceptual approach. After attending the National Conference of Artists, an annual gathering of African American artists, in Chicago in 1970 she visited that city's Field Museum of National History and the African and Oceanic collections there awakened in her, and her friend David Hammons, an interest in the interconnectedness of everything, ritual objects, and the supposed spiritual power they're believed to hold. She later travelled to Haiti and Nigeria to study religious practices and belief systems.
The work she created in this era is intriguing, earthy, mystical, feminine, and evoked ancient methods for retaining information. The wood, paper, glass, feathers, beads, plastic, fur, poker chips, plastic skulls, and leather used to make them are mundane in the extreme but combined, and curated by Saar's hand, they make eerie, potentially prescient, art. They seem to belong in a different time, a different place, possibly even on a different sphere.
Betye Saar - Nine Mojo Secrets (1971)
Betye Saar - Ten Mojo Secrets (1972)
Howardena Pindell - Untitled (1978)
By 1974, fed up of the limited opportunities available for black artists to show their work, Linda Goode-Bryant opened the JAM (Just Above Midtown) gallery in New York. Such was its popularity that, similar to the Tate's show, on its opening night the queues spiralled out onto the street.
JAM was committed to showing new, inventive, and adventurous work. Senga Nengudi used nylon stockings to create her sculptures, Hammons was now using greasy bags, hair, and bbq bones, and Howardena Pindell embedded thousands of hole punched dots into the surface of her sequinned canvas. In many ways it must've felt like the struggle had almost been won. Black artists had for the most part moved away from politicising and were free to be as experimental, or pretentious, as white artists had always been. But, as we all know, that's not the end of the story. Riots, shootings, gang violence, and mass incarcerations continued throughout the last three decades and if the pendulum eventually swung so far that the United States could finally elect, in Barack Obama, its first black president it has now swung so far back the other way that an openly racist, lying, abusive, sex-pest sits behind the desk of the Oval Office (when he's not at the golf course). I can only reiterate that no amount of great art will ever make up for the damage that this man will do to America and the world.
I must also reiterate just how timely, and how brilliant, this exhibition was. If my only gripe is that the photography room was too small to negotiate with such huge numbers in attendance then that's saying something. It was hugely important that the curators pitched this show correctly and that's exactly what they did. As we walked out of the last room into a shop blasting out skronking jazz worthy of Albert Ayler and enthused visitors browsing books and, hopefully, planning their next cultural expeditions I felt confident that the Tate will one day look back at this show as a landmark event in its programming and that many more adventurous shows will follow in its wake. One day, perhaps, one of the numerous children in attendance will host a retrospective here and say that their visit to Soul of a Nation:Art in the Age of Black Power was the day they decided to devote their life both to art and to making the world a fairer, better, more beautiful place for people of all colours everywhere. We can all raise a fist to that.
David Hammons - Untitled (c.1980s)
David Hammons - Flight Fantasy (c.1980s)
Senga Nengudi - R.S.V.P. XI (1977/2004)