Outside the door opening up to the Soul of a Nation exhibition at Tate Modern screens offer vintage news footage of Black leaders Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael, James Baldwin, Malcolm X and Angela Davis.
These men and women – two of whom were assassinated – shaped the political landscape of the 1960s and 1970s. The echo of their voices lends resonance to Nina Simone’s call for artists to reflect their times.
In the wake of white supremacist brutality in Ferguson and Charlottesville, revisiting the Black power movement in America has gained a new urgency.
Soul of a Nation shows how artists were swept up in the struggle against the oppression of the institutionally racist US state. Through determined resistance, self-organisation, self-education and study of revolutionary theory, the movement and its artists asserted the possibility of a non-racist and revolutionary culture.
Support for Black power arose out of frustration with the pacifist orientation of the Civil Rights movement led by Martin Luther King. Leaders like Malcolm X called for justice “by any means necessary”.
Bobby Seale and Huey Newton founded the Black Panther Party in October 1966 to defend victims of police violence. The party championed Black self-determination. At the same time, its 10-point programme was distinctly anti-capitalist and socialist. It appealed to all oppressed and working class people to unite against the ruling classes and the state.
But the US state struck back. Under its chief, J Edgar Hoover, the FBI’s counter intelligence programme (COINTELPRO) targeted Black Panther leaders. Police backed by FBI agents murdered Black Panther leaders around the country. Amongst the first to be killed in this way was the BPP’s 21-year-old deputy chair, the talented and popular organiser, Fred Hampton. After being drugged by an FBI agent, Hampton was shot whilst asleep in his bed. It was an act of extreme brutality commemorated by artist Dana C Chandler in his reconstruction Fred Hampton’s Door.
David Hammons’ multi-media Injustice Case (1970) leaps out of the wall: shadowy body marks move around like ghostly x-rays on a white background, framed by the Stars and Stripes. Hammons used imprints of his own body on paper in this cry of anger against the treatment of Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale. Seale was bound and gagged by the trial judge when he was accused of conspiracy after anti-war demonstrations during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.
Emory Douglas became the Panthers’ Minister of Culture designing a remarkable series of propaganda posters and back covers for The Black Panther newspaper. Large-scale outdoor murals gave artists a chance to reach out to large numbers of people. The famous Wall of Respect, which 14 artists painted on a derelict building in Chicago’s South Side in 1967, commemorated Black heroes and heroines including Muhammad Ali, Aretha Franklin and Martin Luther King. It was part of a nation-wide mural movement.
Black and Asian photographers made a special contribution. They celebrated the streets and inhabitants of Harlem as well as engaging in more abstract and lyrical subjects – musicians and singers in performance, still lives and nudes. Just waiting to be re-discovered is a 1955 photo book, The Sweet Flypaper of Life. It is a miniature gem of a story by Langston Hughes accompanied by Roy DeCarava’s photographs.
Controversies arose about whether Black art had to be figurative or openly propagandist or whether the artist could work in an abstract idiom. Some like Jack Whitten used abstraction to pay homage to Malcolm X and African American history. British-Guyanese painter, Frank Bowling, took part in these debates. His magisterial Middle Passage features in the second to last space. A superb display of his work is currently at Munich’s Haus der Kunst.
The last space at Tate Modern takes on a new spirit of joy in the inventiveness of Lorraine Grady who involved hundreds of people on a parade celebrating Harlem’s African American Day Parade.
This is a knock-out show. Go and see it.
Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power is open daily at Tate Modern until
22 October. In 2018 it moves to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in
Arkansas and to Brooklyn Museum, New York from September 18, 2018.