Review: Soul of a Nation, Tate Modern ‘Powerful Show on Black Art – But Why the White Artists?’

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What did it mean to be a Black artist in the USA during the Civil Rights movement and at the birth of Black Power? What was art’s purpose and who was its audience? These are the critical questions at the heart of this new show, Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, a landmark exhibition exploring how these issues played out among African American artists from 1963 to 1983.

This terrific and powerful exhibition features more than 150 works by over sixty artists, many on display in the UK for the first time. This show, therefore, is a timely opportunity to see how American cultural identity was re-shaped at a time of social unrest and political struggle.

Of course, it is inevitable that many of these artworks seethe with anger and are drenched in politics. Dana C. Chandler’s Fred Hampton’s Door 2, 1975, hits you like a ton of bricks. The bullet-riddled wooden door a testament to the young Black Panther who was murdered in his bed by the Chicago police. And there’s David Hammons’s Injustice Case, 1970, which shows a sketch of Bobby Seale in his trial for conspiracy to incite violence gagged and bound, as he was in the courtroom. The injustice in these is shaming and palpable.

And as well as the explicit, there is the challenge to stereotypes in pieces such as Betye Saar’s The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, 1972, and her Sambo’s Banjo, 1971-2, which takes on the racist stereotypes of the Southern Mammy, reconfiguring her as a symbol of Black female empowerment, and the minstrel who is surrounded by watermelon and lynchings, but to whom she gives the means to be his own saviour with a rifle nearby.

But some Black artists were resistant to a seeming obligation for their works to be overtly political and were resistant to ‘Black Art’ being defined this way, hence why this show includes some striking abstract works, such as Frank Bowling’s vast and vibrant Texas Louise, 1971, in its warm messy hues of pink and orange, as well as William T. William’s geometric Trane, 1969.

As well as the big, eye-catching works, there’s photography too, and this shouldn’t be overlooked or passed by as they are a real highlight. Roy Decarava’s images of everyday Black Americans as well as icons such as Malcolm X and Coltrane do not draw you in solely for their subject matter. This was also a photographer fascinated in creating a distinctly Black aesthetic. Many of his images work in a very dark tonal range, demanding you peer in a little closer to make out the figures within.

And compare Decarava’s sense of intimacy and privacy with the joyous crowd scenes in Lorraine O Grady’s collection of works taken at a parade, which burst with colour and smiles. The way Lorraine has invited the Black men and women, and girls and boys, to own their own representation and to place themselves as the central subject of these images by giving them a frame to put around themselves is telling and cleverly executed.

I wish I could say that this show is on the mark all the way through but that is not the case. There is a blip here, and it’s not a minor one.

For reasons I still do not fully understand, the Tate curating team has found it necessary – in this exhibition that platforms, examines, and celebrates Black art and Black artists – to include two works by White artists: an Andy Warhol painting of Muhammad Ali, and an Alice Neel portrait of Faith Ringgold.

I mean, where the hell to begin?

At the Press View, the Tate staff were performing all sorts of verbal contortions to justify their inclusion, referring to the need to include pictures of these two pivotal Black figures in the show (because they were never painted or photographed by any Black artists apparently??), and also to say how supportive of Black artists Warhol and Neel were. (Um, so what?)

Quite simply, it is a disgrace that these paintings are included. I don’t care how nice to Black people Warhol and Neel were; their presence undermines not just the spirit of the exhibition, but also the Tate’s reputation for platforming overlooked artists. What does this say about the Tate that they put on a show about Black art but feel it is incomplete without the White gaze? It sends out a terrible message.

But more than this, it is not for art galleries, with their heavy White bias, to take it upon themselves to “fill in the gaps” in Black art. Black art isn’t “missing” anything. There is nothing “wrong” with Black art if it never includes a single representation of Ali or Ringgold (which I find hard to believe, btw). White people shouldn’t judge Black art history as incomplete, which is exactly the inference here.

If I had any weight whatsoever (which I don’t) I would urge the Tate to remove these artworks from the show immediately. It is perverse that they are included and shows up the gallery for all its Whiteness. But please don’t let this dissuade you from visiting this show. As a whole, this exhibition is terrific, necessary and overdue. Enjoy the artworks, revel in their variety, and ignore the White artists.

Tate Modern, London, to October 22, 2017

Please see more images from this exhibition in the album on my Facebook page.

Image Credits:
1 Benny Andrews, Did the Bear Sit Under a Tree?, 1969. Emanuel Collection.
2 Elizabeth Catlett Black Unity, 1968. Crystal Bridges. Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas.
3 Lorraine O’Grady Art is (Girlfriends Times Two) 1983/2009. Courtesy of the artist and Alexander Gray Associates, NY.
4 William T. Williams Trane, 1969. The Studio Museum, Harlem, NY.

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