“WHAT DID IT MEAN to be a Black artist in the USA during the Civil Rights movement and at the birth of Black Power?” In its ambitious exploration of that question, “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” at the Tate Modern, London, brought together more than 150 works produced between 1963 and 1983—an intense, transformative period in American art, activism, and culture, when black identity came into sharper focus and demanded to be reckoned with, while the spark of black liberation caught fire in the US, the Caribbean, and Africa. The vast majority of the sixty-some artists included had never been shown in the UK before. This important exhibition also featured a handful of works that had not seen the light of day anywhere in decades. Presenting something of a temporal-geographical mash-up, the curators (Mark Godfrey and Zoe Whitley, with Priyesh Mistry) installed the show across twelve rooms in the cavernous Bankside venue. There were galleries devoted to individual artists or collectives (Betye Saar, AfriCOBRA) and to modes, themes, or media, some keyed to a place (East Coast abstraction, Los Angeles assemblage), and others untethered to any specific locale. The rather freewheeling organizational schema encouraged visitors to draw connections among works, yet it may have made it difficult for them to forge a cohesive understanding of what was at stake for black artists during this period. Partially offsetting this problem, archival photographs, video, posters, and ephemera, as well as extensive wall labels, provided vital context.
The show opened with a gallery dedicated to Spiral, the New York collective founded in 1963 by Charles Alston, Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis, Hale Woodruff, and other artists who had been galvanized by that year’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. This section illustrated artists’ interests in politics and activism, as well as in aesthetic responses to the events of the times, which they interpreted via often-revolutionary practices and ideas. It also dramatized the debate among black artists about the merits of figuration versus those of abstraction for representing the civil rights struggle. One challenge the Spiral artists put to one another involved mounting an exhibition of works whose palette was restricted to black-and-white. A selection of pieces from this 1965 show was on view at Tate Modern: a group of Bearden’s well-known magazine collages; Reginald Gammon’s stark, commanding canvas Freedom Now, 1963, portraying steadfast civil rights marchers with their graphically powerful placards; Lewis’s Processional, 1965, in which throngs of figures converge in an homage to the Selma-to-Montgomery marches aimed at registering black voters.
Spiral’s black-and-white show (the group’s only exhibition) was held in a rented space in downtown New York rather than in a commercial or institutional venue. Other collectives represented in “Soul of a Nation,” founded a bit later than Spiral, sought to move beyond the gallery altogether. In Chicago, the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC), a group of artists, educators, poets, and musicians, spearheaded the nationwide community mural movement with The Wall of Respect, 1967, a collaborative work honoring leading figures in black American history. A section of the wall was on view in the “Art on the Streets” gallery, which explored the questions of how black art should be exhibited and to what audiences. The Wall of Respect brought life to its neighborhood not simply as an artwork to be experienced on its own terms, but also in its activation as a backdrop for performances and poetry readings. Black artists took their work to the streets by other means, too, establishing their own exhibition spaces and periodicals and distributing the latter in their own communities. The agitprop stylings of Emory Douglas, the graphic artist behind the Black Panther, the magazine of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, founded in Oakland in 1966, boldly communicated the organization’s platform to its constituents.