In July of 2017 the Tate Modern revealed its largest retrospective of African-American art to date, with the opening of the ‘Soul of a Nation Exhibition: Art in the Age of Black Power’. The art is not just African-American, but it is a period retrospective that hails from the heated years of activism between 1963-1983, and follows the narrative and production of some of the radical events, artists, and art collectives of that era.
The exhibition is a beautiful capturing of history, and vibrant exploration into a cannon of art that continues to be under-acknowledged. It is powerfully arranged into rooms that boom with colour and deep blacks, bold and astute characters, and textures which evoke all the emotions, thoughts, love and PTSD one could imagine. Curator Zoe Whitely, reflected her goals for the exhibition in an interview with An0ther Magazine stating she wanted shed light on the systemic erasure that happens with the art world, and “in order to do that, one has to address, in the context of gender and race, how that converges to elevate a certain artist and leave others underrepresented”. This is a simplified explanation of the power and presence behind content and/or reason this exhibition exists.
Around every corner lies new content, tropes, and anecdotes of history. Each piece of art needs respectful decompacting, from aesthetics to politics, and beckons the question whether and how we can separate the two.
Each room is presented with a different thematic introduction, somewhat like chapters to the exhibition, highlighting different regions of the U.S.’s response, specific art collectives, thematic, or medium based collections. I found this style of grouping and the cultural context the curators provide as background to the work very helpful. The ‘chapters’ help ground the viewer for the experience in each room, and more so, provide an important educational piece to those that may not be well versed in the history or artwork.
One of my favourite pieces was ‘Injustice Case’ by David Hammons. A large and visceral screen-print of a body representing Black Panther Bobby Seale gagged and bound in a chair (replicating the events that happened in his 1969 trial with the Chicago 8) back dropped by an American Flag. The piece stands alone on a wall and the figure of the man is about 2x the size of real life. Although the image is mostly white the piece jumps off the wall with pain and emotion because of its sheer size and graphic imagery.
Another chilling and tear provoking piece is ‘I’ve Got Rhythm’ by Betye Saar.
A dark twist on the metronome, we see a small black skeleton on acting as the time keeping piece accompanied by a collage of real newspaper clippings that highlight different lynching’s of black men. To run painful point of the satirical title home further, Saar circles one in red which states ‘Lynched After Refusing to Dance on White’s Command’. This piece is particularly morbid, but also not untrue – in fact it is based out of the most visceral accounts of history that is consistently asked to be forgotten, and washed over as not significant to the contemporary. Pieces like this in the exhibition remind us how African-American art, and black art in general often act as ways to play with, explain, cope, and re-envision shared histories, which include both joy and pain.
A third piece I found particularly powerful was the corridor of photography.
The space included the work of many photographers (e.g. Roy DeCavara, Adger Cowans, Beuford Smith) and presented encased archival books and magazines like The Black Photographer’s Annual, A photography and poetry collection by Amiri Bakara, and more. This collection was a visually softer, a break from the large-scale paintings and mixed medium works, but equally powerful. It highlighted beautiful silk like black and white photos of black life across America, as told from these various photographers point of view.
A contributing artist in the exhibition William T Williams commented to the Guardian on the show that he hopes viewers “see 65 different artists working in a time period, with different ideas and interests and technique – skilled at what they’re doing. I hope it gives them some sense of the history of the medium and the history of art in general.” This point is important; he remarks directly to the erasure and underrepresentation experienced by certain artists that Whitely also remarked as a responsive goal of hers within the curation of the exhibition. Yet, this mutual goal that each of them comment on, is also my main critique or question of the exhibition, or mostly The Tate.
The history of the civil rights movement in America holds undoubtable worldwide importance, often used an an example for social justice activism and liberation movements within the 20th century. Yet as an politically active African-American residing in London, I question where is the acknowledgement or celebration of Black British activism and arts activism within this timeframe at The Tate?
As I walked through the exhibition I appreciated seeing my history, things that I know from family, reading, and personal experiences. I believe in the importance of sharing history, and would never take anything away from the significance of this exhibition on its own – but my question stands: where is this same retrospective for Black British art? Albeit naturally different, the U.K. and specifically England had very vibrant black activist movements within the exact same time frame, 1960’s-1980’s, and in conjunction an art movement that was a simultaneous response.
Recently selections of commercial galleries have been more consistently showing emerging and established black artists and Black British artists. ‘The Place Is Here’ exhibition currently at South London Gallery which highlights Black British artists and activism, but The Tate has yet to grapple with this history in a serious way – and this is necessary.
During this political climate art institutions need to be reflecting these discussions, and this exhibition is one of them. In 2017 in London alone has been jarred by the tragedies of Grenfell, multiple terror attacks, and most recently the killing of a Rashan Charles, an unarmed black teen that died amidst a police stop and search within a week of the ‘Soul of a Nation’ opening. In the face of these facts I urge that The Tate needs to hold the space for and with British citizens to grapple with these struggles in full breadth of historical perspective - in the way only retrospective exhibitions can.
As a society, as small communities, and as individuals; we are in constant need of opportunity to review, learn, and process the world around us. This exhibition gave us great view into many important topics, some universal and some not. The Tate makes efforts through l talks and events, but with the surge of exhibitions bubbling across the city of London - it seems the public may be overdue for a larger platform for discussion.
I am thankful for the work that The Tate put into this exhibition, and am now ready to hear more of the British perspective, cannon, and experience from the same critical diasporic topic - Black resistance.
Written By: Mattie Loyce
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