Soul of a Nation

Art in the Age of Black Power

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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“Art in the Age of Black Power 1963 –1983” celebrates and dignifies the significant body of artwork by African American artists that was crucial to the black experience and American history. This remarkable and vital exhibition captures a volatile period in the U.S. when racial identity and racial politics exploded into the quest for freedom and racial pride. It was a difficult time for black artists who mainly worked without the benefit of galleries, collectors and media appreciation. And they faced the thorny question of how artists who are African American should merge their creativity and politics. This show conveys the historical, but also sadly contemporary, angst, power and eloquence that grew out of the answers to that question.

Originally curated at the Tate Modern in London in 2017, with over 150 works by more than 60 artists, including 42 works added for the de Young exhibition (half of which have Bay Area connections) “Soul of a Nation” is separated into ten spacious, well-lit, sections, grouped by movements, geography, galleries, ideas, and collectives.

As the initial chronological point of departure, the first gallery memorializes the Black and White Exhibition of the Spiral Collective, a group of 15 black artists founded in 1963. As the now 95-year old Spiral Collective member Richard Mayhew, one of several artists who attended the press preview, explained, “The exhibition developed for only one reason. All the artists were so different in their directions. The only way we could have some unity if everybody would do what they do in black and white.”

Among the notable pieces in this gallery is “Processional,” an iconic work by Norman Lewis that at first appears abstract, but is actually figurative. It memorializes the famous Selma to Montgomery, Alabama civil rights march of 1963. 

In the “Black Light” section are photographs from the Kamoinge Workshop (In Kenya’s Kikuyu (Gikuyu) language, kamoinge means “a group of people acting together.”) Founded in 1963 by a group of black photographers, who shared a similar aesthetic, they sought to communicate the abundance of their community.  Herb Robinson’s 1973 “Brother and Sister” is a tribute to dignity, strength, and innocence.

“Black Power Art in the Streets” is named after the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, founded in Oakland in 1966. Dana C. Chandler’s evocative “Fred Hampton’s Door 2” is the bullet-ridden embodiment of the shooting by Chicago police of Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton. Elizabeth Catlett’s mahogany sculpture fist, “Black Unity,” is the artistic recreation of the raised Black Power fist at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

The “Los Angeles Assemblage” gallery illustrates the profoundly emotional responses to the Watts Riots, which broke out on August 11, 1964. The assemblages of found objects, and damaged and destroyed bits of the artists’ riot-torn neighborhood include 11 works by the innovative surrealist Betye Saar, notably, “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima,” in which the Aunt Jemima mammy figure is carrying a gun.

“What’s Going On,” Barkley L. Hendricks 1974 large, super-cool, oil and acrylic painting, may be the artist’s response to Marvin Gaye’s classic song. Located in the “Black Heroes” gallery, it features a group of white-suited “brothers and sisters,” except for one naked black woman. The meaning of the work is for the viewer to discover, but the composition and tone are commanding.

Among the “Abstraction” grouping, is Frank Bowling’s 1970 “Penumbra.”  Part of his “Map” series that deals with the African Diaspora, this 8 x 23-foot dreamlike painting has just been acquired by the de Young.

“Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963–1983” is an exciting, stimulating, and provocative exhibition full of art that is historically important and still relevant today. In addition to the many programs associated with the show, the de Young is offering free admission to the entire museum for all visitors on four Saturdays throughout the run of the exhibition.

By Emily S. Mendel 


© Emily S. Mendel 2019     All Rights Reserved

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