Art in the age of Black Power

‘Soul of a Nation’ at the Brooklyn Museum is an outstanding exposé of the art that emerged in tandem with the promotion of black collective interests in the 1960s and 70s.

Roy DeCarava, Five Men, 1964.

On the fourth and fifth floors of the Brooklyn Museum, right above the collections of Egyptian, African, European and American artefacts, the soul of the nation lies glowing. But what nation? Not the United States of America, but the cultural, political and separatist “black nation” that emerged in the USA in the 1960s and 70s. In an era when Africa’s new states were gaining independence from the European colonial powers and a global pan-African unity developed, the struggle of black Americans emerged in a new light. There were uprisings in the streets of Watts and other places. The victories of the civil rights movement were measured against its setbacks and losses, and against the pervasive racism. In this context, there emerged a multifaceted movement based on ideas of economic and social self-sufficiency, and pride in being black and having African roots. Black brothers, sons and daughters were to be redeemed by a new nation, according to Amiri Baraka, the poet, previously known as LeRoi Jones, who left his white wife and half-white children in Greenwich Village, moved to Harlem and started the Black Arts Movement.

Barkley Hendricks, Blood (Donald Formey), 1975.

‘Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power’ is conceived of chronologically, from 1963 through 1983, but also charts geographical patterns through presentations of the artist collectives Spiral and Kamoinge in New York, the circle around the Brockman Gallery in Los Angeles, the newspaper of the Black Panther Party in the Bay Area and the group AfriCOBRA in Chicago. The first room is dedicated to the New York-group Spiral, and their entirely black-and-white first exhibition in 1965. The group had been discussing blackness, the relationship between politics and aesthetics, and the possibility of a collective expression for two years. That the civil rights movement was a general point of reference becomes clear in how Norman Lewis’s dancing brush strokes invoke the marches from Selma to Montgomery during 1965. The black-and-white 1960s continue with works from the photo collective Kamoinge – led by Roy DeCarava – whose dark tones seem to be holding back a force that reoccurs in the exhibition. Most poignant is Five Men, in which we see the faces of men leaving the memorial service for the four girls killed in a 1963 KKK bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama.

It’s not until we arrive in the third room, with works from New York and the South, that the exhibition explodes in color, three-dimensional works, and a militant and affirmative notion of Black Power. The greens, reds, and blacks of the pan-African flag appear in Fred Hampton’s Door 2 (1975) by Dana C. Chandler and United States of Attica (1971–1972) by Faith Ringgold. Chandler’s painting is perforated by bullet holes, recalling Hampton’s door after the police forced it open and shot the Black Panther member dead in his sleep. Ringgold’s lithograph features a map of the United States with handwritten annotations about American violence throughout history: war waged against the indigenous population, race riots, lynching, and so on. Ringgold’s work is dedicated to the 42 men who died in the Attica prison uprising in 1971. The work employs maps and instructions in a way that seemingly aligns it with the practices of Öyvind Fahlström or Robert Filliou.

Faith Ringgold, United States of Attica, 1971–1972.

Los Angeles is the point of origin for a series of sculptural works using materials such as bones, leather, wool, shells and wood. Betye Saar’s Spirit Catcher (1977), Noah Purifoy’s Totem (1966–1968) and John Outterbridge’s Tribal Piece, Ethnic Heritage Series (1978–82) constitute a sort of ethnographic exploration of historical and more recent links with African traditions. A stark contrast to these works, with roots in slavery and plantations, are the prints from the Bay Area: Emory Douglas’s work for the Black Panther newspaper and the posters that ran in the paper each week. Douglas’s expression moves between photo collage, stencils, and cartoon characters with thick contrast lines, through themes of police violence, self-study, armed resistance, and self-defense. Here, tensions between essentialism and universalism emerge in relation to the LA artists. Because, despite the image of the party founder Huey P. Newton with a rifle in one hand and an African spear in the other, and despite the visual emphasis on blackness in the newspaper (which in 1969 had a print run of 250,000), the Black Panthers must be understood in opposition to the search for  heritage and an essential blackness. Already in 1968, the Black Panther Party declared that their struggle was primarily a class struggle, and that it was universal.

A Black Panther like Fred Hampton, who in relation to the armed struggle against capitalism spoke of the cowardly life style choices of the “Africanized fools,” would probably have been skeptical of the Chicago collective AfriCOBRA (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists), which in 1970 wanted to abandon the prevailing criteria for good art in favor of a quest for the “expressive awesomeness that one experiences in African art and life in the U.S.A”; a form of colorful, word-heavy, obvious poster art. AfriCOBRA does share certain ambitions with other Afrocentric projects, such as jazz musician Sun Ra’s pioneering work in what would later be called Afrofuturism, but artistically speaking, they are light-years behind. At the same time, their basis in actual struggles makes the works interesting from an art historical perspective; the art simply looks different when it has been selected because of its place in a political and social movement, rather than in a linear, individually-driven and progressing history. In Chicago, some of the same artists had created The Wall of Respect, a large mural depicting black American musicians, actors, politicians, writers and athletes. It was a collective work and its style was less programmatic, but perhaps more interesting – let’s say purposive – than that of AfriCOBRA. Performances and readings were organized with the wall as a backdrop and similar murals were created in several other cities.

Alma Thomas, Mars Dust, 1972.

In addition to the geographical division, ‘Soul of a Nation’ emphasizes abstraction and the question of whether – between Amiri Baraka’s idea of ​​a distinctly politicized black art, on one hand, and formalist abstraction, on the other – there is such a thing as black abstraction. Perhaps the only interesting answer is affirmative. For how, asks curator Mark Godfrey, can representatives of the Black Arts Movement celebrate the abstraction of jazz, but reject it in the visual arts? Then again, the comparison is misleading: the listener’s passive knowledge of the cultural and historical contexts of the instruments, rhythms, and vocal traditions is probably greater than the viewer’s knowledge of painting techniques. The question is to what extent Jack Whitten, Sam Gilliam and Joe Overstreet’s works would be perceived as black abstraction if it weren’t for their titles: Homage to Malcolm, April 4 (the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated) and Strange Fruit. These are titles that simultaneously allow for figurative interpretations of pyramids, bullet wounds, hanging bodies, etc., and render the paintings as performative statements of tribute and memorial. Notable among the abstract works is Alma Thomas’s large Mars Dust (1972), a painting in which something is only hinted at, far away in the dark behind the very dense, wide, short, red and vertical brushstrokes.

’Soul of a Nation’, installation view. Photo: Jonathan Dorado.

Interestingly, the relatively unknown painter Charles White is emphasized as an important mentor for a younger generation. Perhaps it is also one of his more well-known students, David Hammons, who most effectively expresses something of the soul in the exhibition title – a certain vitalism that, according to singer Bobby Byrd, you must to have for the music to groove you. Hammons entices the viewer with a dance of playful installations such as Baglady in Flight (1975/1990), where winks at Duchamp are mixed with recognition of quotidian black life, and then transformed into reminders of homelessness as a direct consequence of American history. That is, American history as inseparable from the fact that slavery was not  abolished without being replaced by racist Jim Crow laws, that these laws were not defeated by the Civil Rights Movement without its leaders being killed, that formal equality before the law has not changed the fact that unemployment among black Americans today is twice as high as among whites (and poverty more than twice as high) and, finally, that Black Power could not eliminate the need for a movement like Black Lives Matter.

‘Soul of a Nation’ was produced last year at Tate Modern in London, as a result of the expansion of their American collection. It is an exceptional exhibition, despite a certain male dominance in selection and motifs. Counter to this stands Betye Saar’s assemblage The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972), and above all the painting Eva the Babysitter (1973) by Emma Amos, the only female member of the Spiral group. In the interaction between the artist’s own child and the smiling babysitter, Amos depicts domestic and often female labor, while the figure “Eva” reminds us of the mother’s absence and thus becomes a kind of inverted representation of the female artist’s work. In addition, a strange echo from the suffragettes emanates from the vitrines showing documents from the Brooklyn Museum’s own history. An anonymous letter addressed to the Baltimore Museum tells us that the museum’s Picasso portrait has been defaced with a marker, and that more artworks will be damaged unless the police killing of citizens ends. This is not entirely different from the suffragette Mary Richardson slashing Velázquez’s The Toilet of Venus (1647–51) at the National Gallery in London in 1914, demanding freedom for the imprisoned Emmeline Pankhurst. Now that the letter itself has become an exhibition object, it is also a reminder of the unstable and paradoxical connection between art, politics, life and death.

’Soul of a Nation’, installation view. Photo: Jonathan Dorado.