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.
by Oyin Akande
Tate Britain hosted its final Late of the year 2016 on Friday with an evening at Millbank aimed at exploring family and belonging through an evening of art, music, and conversation.
The evening brought a peculiar object of the past into discussion with more contemporary issues and culture. Inspired by themes of family and identity in the infamous 17th-century painting, ‘The Cholmondeley Ladies’– a popular favourite at the Tate Britain- the night was aimed at creating a conversation around contemporary communities, family, and heritage. The translatability of the image is remarkable. This type of portraiture was very popular in the Elizabethan and early Stuart periods but the linearity and the non-naturalism of the image are very familiar tropes to the contemporary eye.
The painting of the Cholmondeley Ladies is shrouded in an attractive mystery. The artist is unknown and, indeed, the identities of the figures are ambiguous. The image is of ‘Two Ladies of the Cholmondeley Family, Who were born the same day, Married the same day, And brought to Bed [gave birth] the same day’, as the inscription states, yet there is nothing in the genealogical tables either to support or refute the assumption that the subjects were twins or even sisters, which is the general assumption. They might only have married into the Cholmondeley family and the fact that they shared the same birthday could be explained as pure coincidence. Nevertheless, they share a strong resemblance.
A superficial glance will inform you that the figures are identical but the painting plays games and you are continuously finding idiosyncrasies with increased familiarity with the work.
Nadine Ijewere’s work offers such an interesting dialogue with the 17th-century oil painting. The Jamaican-Nigerian photographer struggled with her own mixed identity and the disconnection she felt from her heritage growing up in London. She developed an interest in people and culture and used her photographs to explore it. “I’m interested in how other people identify and celebrate who they are and where they’re from,” she explains.
Ijewere started Same//Difference, a personal project, to explore family and heritage through physical traits of siblings. Her project mainly documents non-Caucasian women as she hopes to give a platform to under-represented ethnicities and identities. She is interested in sisters stating that ‘being a sister and having sisters is special. Sisters share strong bonds. And that bond stretches further too, between women, uniting them and helping them recognize the beauty within one another’, in an interview with i-D magazine earlier this year.
I am a particular fan of the way she uses closeness and intimacy in the photographs. Her subjects are in contact with each other in away, perhaps only siblings can be. Faces are typically touching, sisters are in a comfortable embrace- one sibling might subtly mirror the other . The obvious resemblances of the siblings are only highlighted by the beauty of their differences. Next to on another, these sisters exhibit and celebrate their collective heritage. But as the eye moves across the image, almost disconcertedly, you discover their individualisms. And it is mystifying.
Elements of the Same//Difference project has also recently been used in the Gap #doyou Fall 2016 campaign.
Late at the Tate:Generation also featured a photography exhibition documenting black diasporic communities in London in the 60s and 70s, ‘Stan Firm Inna Inglan: Black Diaspora in London, 1960-1970’, featured eight photographers: Raphael Albert, Bandele ’Tex’ Ajetunmobi, James Barnor, Colin Jones, Neil Kenlock, Dennis Morris, Syd Shelton and Al Vandenberg, whose photographs were as varied as their backgrounds and experiences of London. Many were vibrant, such as the nightlife culture and the interracial couples that fascinated Ajetunmobi after he stowed away to London from Nigeria, and the large community living in an Islington council housing project that features in former dancer of the English Royal Ballet Colin Jones’ The Black House 1973-76. But they could also be dark, such as the work of Dennis Morris- the photographer famous for his images of Bob Marley– whose London certainly appears more bleak and dangerous. The exhibition is a documentation of community through the literal lens of people within these communities. It is interesting to think how these fit next to the prevailing narratives that have been handed down to us about black communities of this time. The exhibition marks a moment where control over our representation was returned to the black man (literally ‘men’, would have been great to have some female names).
Artist Zak Ove and I have known each other for years, having grown up around a similar sub-cultural London melting pot where North London met West London over a couple of decade’s worth of music, parties, clubs and off-the-grid creativity. He, like me, is half Trinidadian, and we both have a lot in common when it comes to our fathers. Zak’s father is filmmaker/photographer Horace Ove, one of the leading Carribean movers and shakers of 60’s and 70’s London. Whenever we’re together there seems way too much to talk about, our stories overlap (my father was a London-based journalist during the 60’s) each other with zeal and I always leave him feeling that our Trini-trailblazing heritage, in all its crazy imperfection, triumph over adversity and tragedy, has given us incredibly strong themes to create with, and more significantly, a strong sense that we are continuations of our father’s journeys.
Our features editor, Oyin Akande, put together this piece on his most recent work at the entrance of Somerset House, London.
You might have seen the graphite army camped outside Somerset House in early October this year. Zak Ové installed “Black and Blue: The Invisible Man and the Masque of Blackness”, 40 solemn-faced Nubian-black statues standing 2 metres high in the courtyard of Somerset House for the annual 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair on the 6th-9th October, during Frieze Week. With Art Basel Miami about to kick off, the artist has also set up an installation at the Untitled Art Fair in Miami, which opened yesterday.
At Miami, ‘The Invisible Men’ return- the name given to the figures assembled in London earlier this year. The statues are undoubtedly protest-ful. The site-specific installation at Somerset House references a play, which was performed at the former 17th century palace that featured players in ‘blackface’. The ‘hands up’ gestures that invited visitors to mimic and interact with the figures are almost channelling the tensions across the pond and the political ‘don’t shoot’ symbolism employed in the Black Lives Matter movement.
With the statues now installed on American soil, Ové augments the allusion by painting two of the three figures on display in American red, white and blue, creating tension on the bodies. It is somewhere between extreme patriotism and clownish mockery. Fascinatingly, Ove uses location lends to their potency and they have gained new significance in their new place, yet these towering figures seem resolutely unmovable. So, Ové’s work is undoubtedly as permeable as it is salient- his installation of ‘Moko Jumbies’ was exhibited last year in the Great Court of the British Museum. They will be moved to the Africa Galleries where Ové as the first Caribbean artist to enter the museum’s permanent collection.
The artist is London-born with Trinidadian roots and works with sculpture, photography, and film. His work is informed by ‘lost culture’ and African and diasporic history- the sculptures were likened to China’s terracotta warriors or the Easter Island monoliths.
These naked black figures are undoubtedly reminiscent of traditional African figures, almost like larger-than-life Kotas (right) on which Zak Ové can write his expression and politics. His work is more generally about a conversation between old and contemporary methods and materials.
We’re looking forward to seeing Zak continuing to clash cultures, deconstructing and reforming our ever-evolving African Diaspora.