Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power at Tate Modern
Each of the 12 rooms of this exhibition comes with an epithet from an African-American artist working in the two decades this collection spans. One that sticks in the mind comes from the artist and Minister of Culture for the Black Panthers, Emory Douglas, who says “the Ghetto itself is the gallery for the revolutionary artist”. Douglas’s words have left the ghetto and are now nailed to the church door (or rather – painted on its wall) declaring a revolution in the gallery.
Frances Morris, the director of Tate Modern, describes this show as a chance to re-visit and re-examine areas we may feel ourselves to be familiar with. Though the gallery is celebrating the centenary of their collection of American art, Soul of a Nation is the first exhibition to focus on the African-American artists who have been ignored.
The pieces grapple with painful and poignant moments of an ongoing fight for civil rights including the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X. The story is not necessarily one of triumph but it is one of defiance. These artists and works have fought for their right to exist in these spaces and to be seen.
One formidable act of defiance was achieved by the co-curators Mark Godfrey and Zoe Whitley, whose diligence resulted in recovering Homage to Malcolm by Jack Whitten. Hidden in storage for almost 50 years, this is the piece’s first outing since 1970. Whitten memorialised Malcolm X in the form of a triangular canvas coated in black paint and then raked by the artist’s own afro comb to reveal glimmers of red and green – the colours of the pan-African flag. It is testament both to the artist and to the suppression of this history that the work holds a radical intensity today.
The devotion of the curators is evident at every level. The ease of the viewers’ journey from abstract expressionism through intimate photography to masterful oil paintings and iconography is emphasised by an accompanying Spotify playlist. Thoughtful details ensure that each visitor’s passage is a step in time with a march of protest.
Soul of a Nation is as sublime as it is shocking and is too important an exhibition to be missed. This showcase poses existential and difficult questions about the politics of representation and the relationship between institutions and people. See this exhibition, but be prepared to leave it feeling moved – maybe even shaken – by irrepressible power and extraordinary soul.
Photos: Mike Garnell
Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power is at Tate Modern from the 12th July until 22nd October 2017. For further information or to book visit here.