This exhibition celebrates the work of Black artists working in the united states in the two decades after 1963. During this turbulent time, these artists asked and answered many questions. How should an artist respond to political and cultural changes? Was there a ‘Black art’ or a ‘Black aesthetic’? Should an artist create legible images or make abstract work? Was there a choice to be made between addressing a specifically Black audience or a ‘universal’ one? The exhibition looks at responses to such questions.
In 1963, when the exhibition begins, the American Civil Rights Movement was at its height. At the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in Washington D.C., Dr Martin Luther King, Jr dreamed that his children would live in ‘a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character’.
King referred to himself proudly as ‘Negro’, but by this time, many who were on the March were beginning to call themselves Black. Taking issue with King’s non-violent position, especially after appalling racist violence later in 1963, many joined in calls for ‘Black Power’.
Others rejected in idea of an integrated America, and began to speak of a separate, autonomous Black Nation. Looking at newly independent African nations, and understanding an ancestral connection to the continent, the terms ‘Afro-American’ and ‘African American’ also began to take root. The artists in Soul of a Nation were profoundly aware of these political visions and different senses of self, and each took an aesthetic position in relation to them.
Reginald Gammon, Freedom Now, Acrylic paint on board, 1963
“America the Beautiful”
In a small series of works, he set aside his flair for colour to concentrate on black and white, in order to reflect on race relations in America. Here, lewis evokes a gathering of the Ku Klux Klan, while titling the work to suggest the difference between America’s vision of itself and its realities.
Norman Lewis, America the Beautiful, Oil paint on canvas, 1960
Romare Bearden The Dove Photostat on Fibreboard 1964
Black Prince is a portrait of Malcolm X, made for the second AfriCOBRA exhibition in 1971 held, like their first, at the Studio Museum in Harlem. It is based on a May 1963 photograph of Malcolm X in Harlem, speaking against segregation and ‘Uncle Tom Negro preachers’.
Wadsworth Jarrell Black Prince Acrylic paint on canvas
Wadsworth Jarrell Liberation soldiers Acrylic paint and foil canvas
“The Divel and His Game”
Kay Brown was for a time the sole woman member of Weusi artist collective, named after the Swahili word for ‘blackness’, and would go on to be an influential member of Where We At! In The Devil and His Game, Brown comments on then-US president Richard Nixton’s foreign and domestic policies.
Kay Brown The Divel and His Game Paper and acrylic paint on canvas 1970
Jeff Donaldson, Wives of Sango, Acrylic paint, gold foil and silver foil on cardboard, 1979
Ed Clark was a part of the second generation of abstract expressionist and in 1957 was the first American artist to experiment with irregularity shaped canvases.
Ed Clark, Yenom (#9), 1970
William T. Williams
This painting was named after John Coltrane and may conjure the cascades of sound in his performances.
William T. Williams, Trane Acrylic paint on canvas, 1969
“Homage to Malcolm”
Most of his late 1960s works were colourful with expressive brushstrokes, however Homage to Malcolm is very clearly structured and is the artist’s only triangular painting.
Jack Whitten, Homage to Malcolm, Acrylic paint on canvas,1970
The palette of red, black and green shares its colours with the pan-African flag where red represents the blood uniting the African diaspora, black as representative of its people, and green being the natural riches of the African continent.
Andy Warhol, Muhammad Ali, Acrylic paint and screenprint on canvas, 1978
“Icon for My Man Superman (Superman Never Saved any Black People – Bobby Seale)”
Icon for My Man Superman (Superman Never Saved any Black People – Bobby Seale) is a self-portrait, trimmed with a border evoking the American flag. Barkley Hendricks painted himself wearing a novelty T-shirt, provocatively nude from the waist down. The work’s subtitle invites a declarative statement of solidarity with the Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale.
Barkley Hendricks, Icon for My Man Superman (Superman Never Saved any Black People – Bobby Seale), Oil paint, acrylic paint and aluminium leaf on canvas,1969
Gerald Williams was one of the five founding members of AfriCOBRA. For Williams, ‘Nation’ referred not to America but to a separate Black nation. Amiri Baraka used the word in the same way in his poem of the same year, ‘It’s Nation Time’, and Jeff Donaldson used the phrase too in the landmark AfriCOBRA text, ’10 in Search of a Nation’, also 1970: ‘It’s NATION TIME and we re now searching.
Gerald Williams, Nation Time, Acrylic paint on canvas, 1970
Injustice Case refers to Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale’s trial for conspiracy to incite violence, during which Seale was bound and gagged in the courtroom. Hammons cut an American flag to frame the image (itself a punishable offence), effectively making this shocking scene from the halls of justice an x-ray of America.
David Hammons, Injustice Case, Body print and screenprint on paper, frame wrapped with American Flag, 1970
“What’s Going on”
Five figures stand nearly life-size. Amalgamations of people real and imagined, the nude woman is modelled on Hendricks’s recurring model, dancer Adrienne Hawkins, and the youngest man in rose-tined glasses is based on the artist’s brother. Hendricks conveys a range of complexions by seamlessly transitioning between highly malleable, slow-drying oil paint and fast-dying acrylic to suggest different textures and surfaces.
Barkley Hendricks, What’s Going on Oil paint, acrylic paint and acrylic resin paint on canvas, 1974
“Brilliantly Endowed (Self-Portrait)”
Brilliantly Endowed is a self-portrait that demonstrates swagger – defiance and cool detachment – as an everyday act of revolutionary aesthetics. Hendricks subtly targets New York Times critic Hilton Kramer, who had concluded a 1977 review by calling that artist ‘a brilliantly endowed painter who erred, perhaps, on the side of slickness’. The artist tackles head-on the double entendre and its potential stereotype connotation of Black male anatomy, while also putting on show his confidence as a painter, upending ‘slickness’ to embrace it as an attribute.
Barkley Hendricks, Brilliantly Endowed (Self-Portrait), Oil paint and acrylic paint on canvas, 1977
Alice Neel, a white artist, was an ardent supporter of the equal representation of Black people – both through her own selection of sitters, such as this portrait of artist Faith Ringgold, and in her social actions.
Alice Neel, Faith Ringgold, Oil paint on canvas, 1977
“Eva the Babysitter”
Emma Amos was the sole woman artist in the Spiral group. The circumstances of socially-accepted domestic and child rearing responsibilities compounded the challenges women artists faced. This image honours a woman who helped enable Amos’s artistic practice. The radiant child-carer smiled while the artist’s toddler daughter is barely contained by the canvas.
Emma Amos, Eva the Babysitter, Oil pain on canvas, 1973
Carolyn Lawrence, Black Children Keep Your Spirits Free, Acrylic paint on canvas, 1972
virginia jaramillo, Untitled, Acrylic paint on canvas, 1971
“We Came from There to get Here”
In he early 1960s, Joe Overstreet Was making image-based painting clearly expressing the political goals of Black Power; he was closely associated with the Black Arts Movement, and painted backdrops for the jazz musician Sun Ra. He later turned to making more abstract work, here painting a colourful grid and drawing the outlines of figures giving gestures of empowerment.
Joe Overstreet, We Came from There to get Here, Acrylic pain on canvas and rope, 1970
Texas Louise was one of six Map Paintings Bowling included in his solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in late 1971. He poured waves of acrylic over stencils of continents that were removed before more paint was applied, so ghostly outlines remain. Continents emerge from and disappear into colour; oceans and rivers are combined with pools and trails of liquid paint. While many Black Americans were pointing to Africa as a mother continent, Bowling’s maps do not privilege any particular place, and celebrate a more fluid and open idea of identity and belonging to the world.
Frank Bowling, Texas Louise, Acrylic paint on canvas, 1971
Photography: Art Road
Notes: Tate Modern