Soul of a Nation: Art in the age of black power

BY ULYSSE DEMONIO AND ELISE LAURIOT PREVOST

Visually, ‘Soul of the Nation’ is a collection of ‘vibrant paintings, powerful murals, collage, photography, revolutionary clothing designs and sculptures made with Black hair, melted records, and tights’. Created in the two decades following 1963, the epitome of the Civil Rights movement, it represents a caesura in the history of the United States and of its black population. This art is the embodiment of dreams of integration, of autonomy and solidarity; sometimes conflicting claims.

The expression of a condition – Communal Resistance

The exhibition finds its grounding in the speeches of notable figures from the era, contemporary art movements and the newly founded independence of many African nations.  The exhibition makes clear that persistent oppression has formed a black community which finds its voice of resistance in these works. The Spiral Group (1963, New York), a pioneering collective, self-described as ‘a group of Negro artists who met to discuss their position in American society […] at a time of crucial metamorphosis just before the now historic March on Washington.’ The question, ‘Is there a Negro image?’, which guided their work, is the central point of this exhibition and is to be retained as the driving question of our piece.

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Norman Lewis, painted in black and white to reflect on race relations in America. Calling it ‘America the beautiful’ (1960), suggests the differences between America’s vision of itself and its realities.

 

Pittsburgh-Memory

 

Romare Bearden, produced multiple collages, portraying the Black migration from the rural South to the North. The fragmentation natural to the collage gives us a visual sense of the dynamic and moving identities of the Black community. (‘Pittsburgh’, 1964)

 

Artists worked in local communities and the general condition of resistance to oppression found a local voice. Each community had a distinctive style.

The Street Art of OBAC (The Organization of Black American Culture), is an excellent example of a local community initiative. The Wall of Respect (1967) in Chicago’s South Side was a gathering place for many cultural activities, and inspired other African American neighborhoods to create their own.

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Wall of Respect, Chicago (1967)

The mural portrayed heroic figures of a Black imaginary ranging from Miles Davis to Muhammed Ali. The portrayal of Amiri Baraka gives us a hint of the purpose of the project.  As the founder of the Black arts movement, he declared that black writers, musicians and visual artists should make art that ‘speaks directly to the needs and aspirations of black America […] the purpose of our writing is to create the nation’.

Africobra (The African commune of bad relevant Artists, 1968), set out to portray the ‘awesomeness’ of the African American community. They used intense colour and shine to convey this message, producing prints of their work so they could be distributed as widely as possible.

Black Prince

 

 

 

 

 

Wadsworth Jarell’s, ‘Black Prince’ (1971) used bits of his speech and repeated the letter B (Black, Bad and Beautiful) to create the face of Malcolm X.

 

 

Certain stylistic choices kept coming back. Many of the pieces were purposely ‘raw’ to show the roots of the black community.

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Benny Andrews’s piece, ‘Did the Bear sit under the tree’ (1969), uses burlap and zippers to represent the American flag and the ‘silencing’ of the black community. Here the subject is ‘shaking his fist at the very thing that is supposed to be protecting him.’

 

 

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Timothy Washington’s, ‘One Nation under God’ (1970), etched images into metal to ‘retain the intensity of his compositions’. He represents the broken promise of ‘40 acres and a mule’, made by the Government during the civil war.

 

 

Much in the same vein, a true obsession with colour, or the lack of it, reflected the intensity and the extremes of the black experience.

 

TraneWilliam T. Williams, ‘Trane’ (1969)

 

This abstract piece which was met with criticism by other black artists for not showing the ‘real lives of Black Americans’ was defended by Frank Bowling who argued that abstract art could be used to ‘re-route fashion and art convention to ‘signify’ something different to Black viewers than white ones’.

The question of abstract art brings us back to our guiding question set by the Spiral collective ‘Is there a Negro image?’.  Although the works are all testimonies of a common condition, divergences emerge.

Along with the abstract and colour questions, Black Artists grappled with other fundamental issues. Who should be represented? Normal people or heroes?

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Adgar Cowans, ‘Shadows’, New York (1961)

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Jeff Donaldson, ‘Study for the Wall of Respect (Miles Davis)’, Chicago (1967)

Would the inclusion of white artists to the collectives be detrimental or beneficial to the black cause?  Some collectives refused while others embraced the support.

These are excellent examples of the variety of discourses and identity conceptions in a time of identity reconstruction.

Political articulations

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Cliff Joseph, ‘Blackboard’ (1969)

The political articulations are to be put in relation to Soul of a nation, the title of the exhibition: a deconstruction of what it means to be Black. These works are the expression of a condition but are also attempts to grasp a newly politically charged identity. Martin Luther King’s historic March on Washington is the opening piece of the exhibition and the start of a historic moment in American Politics, in which Blacks actively strive for a re-founding of the segregated American Nation.

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Reginald Gammon, ‘Freedom Now’, 1965

This political bang saw diverging political conceptions emerge in its wake.

The Black Panthers Party (1966), articulated the concept of black nationalism and black power, a radical political act of resistance.

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Emory Douglas (1970)

 

The relation to newly independent African States became a latent question of Black Political identity.

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Noah Purifoy, ‘Untitled’, 1970

Other essential questions to the nation are addressed.

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Betye Saar’s piece ‘The Liberation of Aunt Jemima’ (1972), superimposes radical imagery of Black nationalism and African Kente clothes with the supposed subservience of Black women. Using stereotypical and racist objects and branding she re-presents the image of black female subservience as a symbol of empowerment.

 

 

 

The underlying presence of Nation of Islam through the affiliation of artists to the movement and the imagery they produced was proof of the essential aspect it played in the articulation political identity.

 

Beyond the theoretical articulations the artworks embody, the exhibition is a reminder of the tangibility and materiality of an identity. While the answer to ‘Is there a Negro image’ remains unclear, the potency of the idea is apparent. The ideas expressed are still relevant today, resonating in the images of a black president, in the daily lives of black Americans, in the cries of ‘Black Lives Matter’ and in the actualised discourse of ‘White America First’.

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David Hammon’s piece ‘Black First, America Second’ (1970), is a performative representation of the end of America as a nation and the replacement of it by a new Black identity, which remains intentionally unclear.

 

 

 

 

Playlist: https://open.spotify.com/user/tate_gallery/playlist/0xkiidctjQouqdcHRibeik

 

Featured picture: Frank Bowling, ‘Texas Louise’ (1971)

Ulysse and Elise are two third-year International Relations students at King’s College London. 

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