Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power

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America the Beautiful by Norman Lewis

This is a celebration of the work of Black American artists in the 1960s and 1970s. While the art on display is inspired by the mass Civil Rights Movement in the US during that time it is incredibly poignant that the issues raised remain so relevant today.

Norman Lewis’s America the Beautiful, for example, is an almost abstract painting depicting the KKK and burning crosses that could be a representation of Donald Trump’s America.

The exhibition begins with the ground-breaking work of Spiral, a group of 15 artists who joined together in New York in 1963. Many of the artists and collectives in the exhibition raised questions such as: what it is to be black; is there black art?; and does a black aesthetic exist?

Spiral’s response was their first group show of works solely in black and white. It was art about people like them for people like them. One memorable piece is Reginald Gammon’s 1963 painting Freedom Now depicting placard waving adult demonstrators shouting and chanting while above them are the legs of marching school children. This captures the participation of school children in acts of mass civil disobedience.

The inspiring influence of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, formed in Oakland, California, in 1966, can be seen in the fusion of art and activism displayed in their innovative newspaper the Black Panther. Emory Douglas, their minister for culture, used his art to agitate and organise, as shown in posters demanding All Power to the People and Free all Political Prisoners.

Faith Ringgold’s creation The United States of Attica (1971-72) highlights the Attica Prison rebellion, the crushing of which resulted in 43 deaths. Ringgold’s work was reprinted as a postcard for a mass audience and presented as an unfinished work in which people could actively participate by adding references to acts of violence by the US state.

Artists explored new ways of creating and exhibiting art, including new collaborative methods of working. This led to a growth in workshops and collectives that challenged the status quo of the art scene. The group the Organisation of Black American Culture, formed in Chicago in 1967, created a Wall of Respect on the South Side of the city. The mural combines scenes of African American family life and images of black heroes.

Their work inspired the spread of the mural movement across African America communities.

Groups took on the art establishment such as when the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC) demonstrated against the New York Metropolitan Museum’s decision not to feature any African American artists in their exhibition Harlem On My Mind in 1969.

African American artists also developed innovative methods of creating art with the use of different materials. In 66 Signs, Noah Purifoy used detritus from the Watts Riots to question materialism. Other black artists subverted and reclaimed images such as Betye Saar in her piece The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, 1972.

Today more than ever this exhibition is needed to celebrate the wealth of talent in the black community and to learn from the spirit of defiance on show here. It is a must-see exhibition for everyone who wants to challenge racism or has an interest in art that looks as diverse as the multicultural city in which it is being shown.