Top image: Icon for My Man Superman (Superman Never Saved any Black People – Bobby Seale), 1969 by Barkley Hendricks. Photograph: © Barkley L Hendricks; courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
A visual narrative of resistance characterises the works featured at Tate Modern’s latest exhibition, Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power. Showcasing twenty years of black art, beginning with the 1963 March on Washington and the inauguration of the Spiral group in New York, through 60s pop art and contemporary photography.
Featuring more than 150 works by over 60 artists, the co-curators Mark Godfrey and Zoe Whitley, alongside assistant curator Priyesh Mistry (interviewed below), have astutely assembled works that bring to life the varied debates and aesthetics of black male and female artists.
As a statement of fearless spirit and conviction, the art of the Civil Rights movement conveys the process of identity formation within the African American community, striving to escape from the negative imagery that caricatured and diminished a rich culture. At a crucial juncture in American social history, race and identity became the focal point of an artistic discourse, which continues to resonate today.
The double consciousness of a minority group, wedged between the Eurocentric and Afrocentric frame of reference, proves to be a strength as opposed to a setback. Instead of occupying a liminal space in culture, these artists actively carved out their own space, in a continuous development of reconfiguring concepts within a potent social movement.
Aïsha Diomandé: Initially, how did the concept surrounding the exhibition develop?
Priyesh Mistry: The concept of the show developed from these questions: how were these black artists really making their work, what kinds of questions were they asking when they were making abstractions, and how they responded to social contexts of the time. Their black cultural identity was really imbued in what they were doing, so they were really pushing the boundaries of abstraction through references to other figures of black culture.
Aïsha: So in light of that, why is abstraction one of the important elements of this exhibition?
Priyesh: The questions start from there. What we present is the different positions these different artists were taking across America. So we start in 1963 and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Martin Luther King declared his ‘I have a dream’ speech. There was a collective of artists who came to the event and tried to respond to that moment, asking themselves, ‘What are we doing together as artists?’ As a response to these social issues. From there, we move forward in time looking at the progressive way these artists addressed key social issues.
Aïsha: Taking into account the re-emergence and expansion of discourses surrounding the experience of minorities, why are these Civil Rights-era artworks still relevant to today’s audience?
Priyesh: I think that it’s interesting because artists will always make work, whatever the social political situation is. We programme our exhibitions a few years in advance so we’re not so directly responsive to the messages that are happening right now. But it’s interesting how you may see parallels and see how that is still relevant for younger artists now, looking back at this time to see what the artists were making, and to see what was possible, and how artists were responding to this political situation at the same time.
Aïsha: Typically, we associate the Black Power movement with charismatic male speakers such as Martin Luther King and Malcom X. Could you explain how the female artists featured in this exhibition were also crucial to the movement?
Priyesh: At the time of these artworks, it was a really important moment for black feminism. The only monographic room in our exhibition is dedicated to Betye Saar, who’s working in LA, making works of assemblage. She bought things from flea markets and found objects to make these very mysterious and beguiling artefacts that referenced West African cultures and South American folk traditions, but also really confronting stereotypes of black women and black society at the same time — very interesting, sometimes humorous, and sometimes with quite dark undertones. Her objects are incredible, so it’s hugely important to have her voice in this exhibition, and to show that women were influential in these conversations as well.
Aïsha: Consequentially, what can we learn from this transgressive group of artists? In particular, what makes them unique in comparison to other artistic movements?
Priyesh: The artists in this show were making very different types of works, in varied ways, and had different outlooks and ideas about what their practices should be and what kind of work they should be making. Hopefully people will come away from the exhibition thinking about how endless the possibilities are in terms of making art. In the last room we have some work by an artist called David Hammons made of take away bags and hair, and there’s another work he made out of charred barbecue bones! There’s also a fantastic work by an artist called Hawardena Pindell, it’s made of punched paper and glitter — it’s a really exciting surface, an incredible way of making a painting which is just pinned to the wall. These works came out of conversations about what it means to make work as a black artist and what it means to reference black culture through their work. Ultimately, the result is exciting, it’s really invigorating.
Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power runs at Tate Modern, London, until 22nd October.