by Maya Kay
The show opens in 1963 at the height of the Civil Rights movement amidst the dreams of integration.
From the Spiral art collective devoted to, and composed solely of African-American artists founded by Romare Bearden, Charles Alston, Norman Lewis and Hale Woodruff; to Just Above Midtown (JAM), there have been pioneers who have dedicated gallery space to exhibit African-American artists and works by people of colour. From Betye Saar to Barkley L Hendricks, this latest retrospective of works from one of the many pockets of the African diaspora explores two decades of America’s eclectic and unquestionably talented African-American artists.
Comprised of 12 rooms, 150 works, and 60 artists: consumed by marginalised art, created by marginalised people, highlighting the differences in differences. Additionally, all of which demonstrate the delightfully diverse – assemblage, abstract expressionist, photography – also reflective of the people the art stems from and represents.
Often labelled as ‘colourful’ and ‘vibrant’, yet all stereotypes aside there is something so much more about black art that is magnetising and goes beyond these hackneyed adjectives. Art that is empowering. Art that is electric. Art that’s under-represented yet simply can no longer be overlooked.
At the entrance we are greeted by the harmonious, household voice of Dr Martin Luther King in the familiar black and white footage commanding the audience’s attention at the podium, during the March on Washington. We then slowly stroll through the unforgettable slice of history that is a cacophony of violence, hatred, propaganda, bloodshed – brows furrowed, we wondered if it is in fact history or what we are experiencing today with Black Lives Matter and high profile police cases at the forefront of widespread media and numerous platforms.
Back then in a myopic milieu, these artists longed for public acknowledgement as well as recognition and out of necessity created their own galleries and exhibitions to showcase their work – it would have been inconceivable to consider being displayed at the Tate Modern, though fast forward to the modern day and you find an increased demand on an international scale, exciting a global audience, sought after by numerous galleries from London to New York, and for discerning collectors, with collections that have vacuums that require filling; yet another reminder of the familiar sitting side by side with the unfamiliar.
The cover art for the exhibition, and one of my personal favourites is the 1969 painting titled ‘Icon for My Man Superman (Superman Never Saved Any Black People – Bobby Seale)’ by Barkley L Hendricks (16 April 1945 – 18 April 2017). Another favourite and key piece of note – and resonates for those of us that have been in the shops in search of “skin colour” hosiery – is Senga Nengudi’s work: made entirely of stretched and mangled nylon tights, direct reference to African-American women who wore tights in so called, ‘nude’ and ‘natural tones’, in order to mask their colour or “appear white”.
Soul of a Nation is a multi sensory experience that allows for posthumous recognition after years of unending yearning for due credit. It is a significant and profound exploration of how to define what a black artist is, what black art is, the impact of society and politics on this definition, emphasises pivotal moments in history that influenced the artists and their art, and skips between the familiar and unfamiliar in a somewhat haphazard manner.
What is unclear is the lack of continuity, what remains clear is that the social and political matters that prevail are as relevant now as they were then, and have a far reaching impact not only to black people, but to all. These artists wanted a chance to be viewed publicly by Americans, now all the world can see.
So what does it mean to be a black artist? It depends.
Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power until 22 October 2017
Tate Modern, Bankside, London, SE1 9TG
Tickets available here.