There are many ways to look at the passionate and very earnest Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983, at The Broad Museum. It is foremost a show intended to be experienced in the context of American politics during the tumultuous decades of the sixties and seventies when, for the first time, many Black artists were emboldened to question and re-imagine their place in a society steeped in racism. The strongest of the overtly political works are rooted in a sense of urgency or despair yet reveal universal conditions that transcend their times. There is an arc to the exhibit that is somewhat like the five stages of grief. The show starts with awareness, moves toward anger, then acceptance, and ends with work that is largely unconcerned with the initial problem altogether. The focus moves from civil rights to questions of personal, artistic and cultural identity. Is that progress or the illusion of progress?
If you are inclined to ignore the messages of Black Power embedded in the art, the show may still be appreciated aesthetically because it is made up of many extraordinary and beautiful works. But perhaps the best way to make sense of the show is by understanding Soul of a Nation as reparations to those excluded by the art hierarchy just as they were subjugated by racism at large. Each of the more than sixty African American artists has earned their place in this exhibit, even artists who didn’t directly address societal issues but explored abstract genres instead. As organized by Tate Modern, London, in collaboration with The Broad, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Arkansas, and Brooklyn Museum, New York, the exhibit is something of a political act itself and begins the long overdue task of correcting an incomplete history while expanding the canon of American art.
All photos by Pablo Enriquez, courtesy of The Broad
Soul of a Nation begins with several Black artist collectives active in the sixties: Spiral, in New York City, and the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC) and AfriCOBRA in Chicago. Then, as now, those who were denied access and visibility formed art collectives for the purpose of creative and political expression. These groups afforded the support and solidarity that the mainstream art machine did not provide.
Spiral existed for just two years, from 1963-1965 and was started by Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis, Charles Alston, and Hale Woodruff. Bearden’s contributions to the single show that Spiral produced were especially significant as he displayed some of his first photo collages, a medium he remains associated with today. Included in this show are examples of his photostats, a method he used for enlarging images cut and torn from newspapers and magazines. Bearden, borrowing from the cubists’ vocabulary, used fractured images to create complex scenes of African American life to expand public perceptions from the limited representations found in pre-existing images. Though Spiral mandated the work for their show be in black and white, these photostats are as satisfying as any of his famously brightly colored collages.
A few years later, OBAC formed in Chicago, bringing together artists, writers and community organizers that were interested in fostering Black culture. From this mindset, the collective produced the Wall of Respect, a popular mural in the near South Side that depicted Black heroes and initiated the proliferation of murals. Afterwards, around 1970, the work in the show begins to show impatience and anger with the status quo. Copies of The Black Panther newspaper, a product of the Black Panther Party (BPP) exemplify this change of perspective. Emory Douglas, the Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party, designed the party’s weekly periodical to expose police brutality as well as strategies for liberation. Alternating between a style of political cartoons and revolutionary posters, Douglas mixed his boldly drawn images with photography and text, replicating a sense of the fervor surrounding the BPP.
In the same room Faith Reingold’s bold paintings and posters chronicle the pain of conflicts. In The United States of Attica, she created a map of the United States to commemorate the lives lost during the Attica uprising and invited people to add in other instances of violence across America. In an earlier work, The Flag is Bleeding from 1967, a group of figures against a bleeding American Flag convey the human cost and pain of injustice. Nearby is Dana Chandler’s Fred Hampton’s Door ll, a wrenching sculpture that turns a violent act into a palpable experience. It references an incidence of police assault and assassination that occurred in Chicago in 1969, when the heavily armed officers shot through a door and killed the young Black Panther leader while he was sleeping. The freestanding painted door, riddled with bullet holes, acts as both a visceral accusation and a memorial.
Concurrent with the focus on violence, some artists responded to this time of social unrest quite differently. AfriCOBRA, another collective out of Chicago, formed in 1968 but took a more decorative, hopeful tack. Wadsworth Jarrell, Jeff Donaldson, Barbara Jones-Hogu and others embraced the emotive qualities of color to express another side of the Black experience. Their work is buoyant and joyful, but Jarrell’s portraits of Angela Davis and Malcolm X that seek to capture the strength of his characters seem more stereotypical than original. In contrast to that audacious colorful work, the black and white photographs by Roy DeCarava are quiet and measured, the antithesis of AfriCOBRA’s sensibility. DeCarava was always an artist who worked independently rather than commercially, an unusual thing for a Black photographer when he began. His photographs at the Broad start in 1958 and span genres from portraits and street scenes to stunning abstractions that have a timeless quality. Shade Cord and Window from 1961 manages to straddle abstraction and political commentary to create a powerful image suggesting a noose that still resonates today.
Beginning in the latter half of the sixties and into the seventies, artists in Los Angeles were showing their work together in artist run galleries. John Outerbridge and Noah Purifoy showed their assemblages at The Brockman Gallery while Betye Saar exhibited at Gallery 32. Purifoy constructed work from scavenged materials from the 1965 Watts riots to create his own brand of brutalism, while Saar put racist memorabilia and other objects into boxes with a nod to surrealism, effectively indicting society’s casual racism and injustices. Outerbridge also used history as his subject, but like Purifoy, the forms of African sculptures defined many of his works. These West Coast assemblage artists, including Melvin Edwards, John T. Riddle and Daniel LaRue Johnson aggressively confronted racism with a physicality and rawness that was unique at the time.
Following the gritty and physical assemblages, the figurative work is altogether different. Three Graphic Artists was a show from 1971 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, promoted by the Black Arts Council (BAC). It featured Charles White, David Hammons, and Timothy Washington, the same artists that fill the gallery now with charcoal drawings, body prints, and other mediums. White’s J’Accuse! No. 5 is an exceptional charcoal drawing, particularly striking for its stark representation of a Black man in a large overcoat, isolated against a plain background, with only leafless branches above his head enshrouding him within a halo or crown of thorns. The drawing is flawless and the composition emphasizes the individual’s frayed coat and presumed poverty. His look is pensive as he smokes a cigarette but the overcoat thrown over his shoulders catches your attention first; he is dwarfed by his circumstances. Hammon’s The Door (Admissions Office), from 1969 is a nice counterpoint to Chandler’s door, but it actually preceded it. We can see through this door, but it is every bit a barrier despite its transparency and claim of admissions.
Modern abstractions, portraiture, and a room devoted to Betye Saar fill the last galleries of Soul of a Nation. With the exception of Martin Puryear’s sculpture that stands guard in the lobby of the Broad (but is easily overlooked), the purely abstract art is the weakest link in the show. Without the context of meaning that substantiates most of the other work, the large canvases seem untethered, particularly as single representations by each artist. The portraits, however, fare much better. The paintings by Barkley Hendricks from the mid-seventies are knockouts, finding the sweet spot between abstraction and figuration. What’s Going On is a stunning assembly of four elegantly attired white clad figures flanking a naked woman and set against a stark white background. Hendrix paints the figures as both formal and serene, somewhat Egyptian in their flat and simplified shapes.
The small, darkened crypt-like room that is devoted to Betye Saar’s work is lovely but seems curiously misplaced. The installation, a nod to her first survey show in 1973, would have made more sense displayed with the other assemblages by the Los Angeles artists. In fact, the natural materials and references to other cultures have more in common with Outerbridge and Purifoy than, say, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima. Nevertheless, it is an opportunity to see more of Saar’s art and the installation benefits her work.
The last works in the show highlight Just Above Midtown (JAM), a gallery in Manhattan that was founded to encourage contemporary African American art, both the artists and collectors. Bag Lady in Flight by David Hammons was originally made in 1975 and was reconstructed in 1990. Made from pedestrian materials, it nevertheless has the elegance of Muybridge’s time-lapse photography or Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. He transformed shopping bags, grease and hair into an object that is personal as well as transcendent. In Nap Tapestry, also by Hammons, he uses hair again and weaves it into a geometric design on an acrylic sheet, in effect using himself as a source of materials and subject. Similarly, Senga Nengudi’s Internal II, from 1977 and 2015 took pantyhose and stretched them beyond recognition to reference the physical body under duress. The mid to late seventies leave us with inward-focused work about the corporal self as well as performance art, both very different concerns than those of Spiral and OBAC.
Soul of a Nation is a show of tremendous talents and big ambitions. It fleshes out a time in our history when African American artists harnessed their awareness, pain, and pride to create work that they hoped would effect change. Forty years later these battles are still being fought. Hopefully the conversation started at Tate Modern will continue at the Broad and ignite curiosity about these artists along with an understanding of the circumstances behind their struggles. Soul of a Nation provides context for this creative period, but where is our soul now?
Lorraine Heitzman is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles. She has written about the local arts community for ArtCricketLA and Armseye Magazine and is currently a regular contributor to Art and Cake. In addition to exhibiting her art, Ms. Heitzman has her own blog, countingknuckles.com, and her art can be seen on her website lorraineheitzman.com