What is Black art? What should it do? What can it do? These are questions posed and answered in this most powerful exhibition of works from 65 Black artists over 150 art works, spanning twenty years from, 1963-1983 currently on exhibition at the Tate Modern. From a replica of Fred Hampton’s door to the portrait of five men, to barbed wire and chain, this showcases some of the most thought provoking works of artists, most of whom we would have never heard of. And it is hard not to feel a raw sting as you walk through as a Black person, it’s hard not to be angry.
In 1966, Mississippi in the March Against Fear, Stokey Carmichael gave a call to action speech from where originated Black Power and the raised fist. Black Power is a refusal to be cowed by racism and oppression, a protest against violence and a message of Black liberation. Fast forward to 2017 and the fight still goes on, the protest is against the same things, and police are still killing Blacks and getting away with it. The conversation has never changed.
As I said, it’s hard not to be angry walking through this exhibition as a Black person- it is a constant reminder of the pains of the past that remain in the present.
An abstract painting by Norman Lewis shows the klansmen with their torches, on a march, it is not quite obvious at first but the painting is such that it demands your focus and it all becomes clear- the essence of white privilege splashed on a black canvas. Dana Chandler’s re-imagination of the Fred Hampton’s (Hamton) door, the young Chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party who was gunned down as he slept by the FBI, stands prominent in vivid green, riddled with bullet holes, with a US Approved stamp on the top left hand corner- state sanctioned killing. Articles from back copies of magazines and newspapers talk about the struggles of Black artists at the time, how they were marginalised by museums refusal to display their works so they took to the streets to not only showcase their talent, but to tell their stories and stories of the community their grew up in. Black stories unheard, stifled, stories of predominantly Black neighbourhoods etc. And in that sense the “Ghetto did become the gallery.” The Wall of Respect in Chicago on an abandoned wall of an industrial building, which has Black legends amongst them Louis Armstrong, Malcolm X, Aretha Franklin etc.
Some of the works here are cultural references of traditional beliefs like Sango’s wives, but most are race related. On a wall in thorough passage way are four portraits, one most striking is of five men. A picture taken of five men as they leave the funeral service of the four little girls who were killed by white supremacists, who detonated a bomb in the 16th Street Methodist Church in Birmingham Alabama. That story is one never to be forgotten and the abject look of sorrow on these men’s faces, the mood captured on what must have been a terribly dark day in American history is easily felt as one looks at the picture. Another by David Hammon is the Trial of Bobby Seale; Injustice Case, bordered by a ripped up American flag. Bobby Seale was bound and gagged and refused a lawyer of his choice during his trial tells the story of the American justice system, then and now.
As you wander through the exhibition, taking in works of artists we have never heard of, you wonder what exactly has changed from the days of slavery. Not a lot, it is simply a new set of shackles and chains dressed up as politics and policies, that are still stifling to Black plight and growth.
Two most impactful works are by Betye Saars’ I’ve Got Rhythm and Curtain for William, an installation. In Saar’s miniature but masterful piece a black man hangs from the needle musical metronome and on the body of the instrument is a newspaper cutting that informs the reader of the reason for his punishment;
Lynched after refusing to dance on white command
encircled in red, in the background is a photos from the civil rights movement, and below the needle where the man hangs, is the American flag- talk about powerful pieces in miniature, it is almost easy to miss it but you cannot. Curtain for William and Peter, by Melvin Edwards 1969, uses minimalism to depict the slavery and incarceration, barbed wires and chains are left hanging, forming a shadow on the wall. It is not only the reminder of the harrowing ordeal faced by enslaved Blacks but Edwards reminds us that not all slaves were chained, there were other ways in which oppression took place- some included in this exhibit- but with Barbed Wire and Chains Williams reaches right to the soul with this painful reminder of a past not too distant.
What’s Going On? Marvin Gaye once sang during the protest at Berkeley against police brutality- this too makes an appearance in the exhibition- we still ask ourselves that question, and many more today.
This exhibition is powerful in every sense of the word. It is impactful, raw, emotional, it stirs up a certain feeling in you no matter your race, and it should. Whilst it is about the Black struggle, it should also be an education on the artists whose names we would have heard of, and inform us about their works, techniques and uniqueness and in so doing bring them and their stories to the front from the margins. And as you walk out past the Black Power fist up, let that feeling, that bitter-sweet feeling, of having witnessed one of the most powerful yet harrowing displays of art along with the stories about the dark times in a nations’ history, never leave you as you literally or figuratively ball your fist in honour of Black Power and all that it means.
Soul of A Nation is in exhibition at the Tate Modern until October 22nd It moves to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Arkansas, 3 February-23 April 2018; then Brooklyn Museum, 7 September-3 February 2019.