Soul Of A Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power is a rich collection of African-American art spanning two decades of unrest. It starts in 1963 as crowds flocked to Martin Luther King’s march on Washington.
With traditional avenues to exhibit blocked by stony indifference, African American artists struck out in new directions as they surfed a wave of revolutionary change.
Neighbourhood buildings in black districts became adopted canvases. This was creative labour on the move, against a backdrop of the most explosive period in the postwar US as Civil Rights somersaulted to Black Power.
What emerged was not a unifying voice, school or identifiable black art but a diverse response to challenging questions.
Were artists responsible to the “black community” or simply to themselves? Should they orient their art towards black audiences and shun established white galleries?
Spiral, a group of fifteen black artists, met over the two years from 1963 in the New York studio of Romare Bearden. He proposed that, at a time of collective action on the streets, Spiral should likewise work collaboratively.
Bearden’s photo collages are a highlight of the exhibition.
For example, Pittsburgh Memory (1964) depicts two “working-class everymen” composed from strips cut from printed images of other faces, in black and white with gold leaf hints.
Bearden wouldn’t brook modesty or apology in locating his collage paintings within the canon of Western art.
He said he was “painting the life of my people as I know it—as passionately and dispassionately as Brughel painted the life of the Flemish people of his day”.
Other artists bypassed the studio and gallery setting for the streets. Harlem-based abstract artists Smokehouse Associates, sought out neighbourhood walls as platforms for expression. It was also a way of transforming a community’s appearance.
Likewise, the mural movement’s Wall of Respect in Chicago’s Southside favoured outdoor space. Pioneered by a group of artists under the acronym Obasa, their murals were homage to black heroes in literature, sport, music and intellectual life.
The exhibition would have benefited from a fuller exploration of the Black Arts Movement, the cultural wing of Black Power movement. But its founder Amiri Baraka is referenced.
A subversive map of the “United States of Attica” produced in the wake of the Attica prison rebellion by one of Baraka’s students, Faith Ringgold, is another draw.
Panther Emory Douglas said, “The ghetto is the gallery for the revolutionary artist.” He brilliantly depicted cops as brutal pigs in human form.
The appalling assassination of fallen Panther Fred Hampton is one of the more sombre exhibits. Fred Hampton’s Door, a work by Dana C. Chandler Jr, is a bullet- strewn wooden door on a base furiously specked with red dots. The top of one door panel is marked “US Government Approved”.
Soul Of A Nation is a weighty exhibition. From paint to sculpture, photography, collage and assemblage. It’s all here with politics aplenty.
But it’s ironic that it took the Ford Foundation’s sponsorship to facilitate an exhibition of African-American art from an era of revolt. That dependency needs to be addressed when the fire arrives next time.