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A Changing Nation, A Nation in Need of Change:  Review of Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power

By Sasha Panaram | @SashaPanaram | with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Wednesday, January 30, 2019.

I seldom travel to Brooklyn, New York but whenever I do there is only ever one destination to which I go: the Brooklyn Museum. In December 2018, as one year came to a close and another was on the brink of beginning, I found myself at the Brooklyn Museum not once, not twice, but three times. Although my repeated trips brought me to the same exhibit, Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, each day, I would be lying if I said that I witnessed the same set of art with every increasing visit.

What I mean to say but cannot quite say and perhaps will only begin to say here is that Soul of a Nation necessitates more than one visit. It demands more than one look. Its very composition invites, creates, and celebrates return.

On display until February 3, 2019, Soul of a Nation features a wide range of black artistic practices from 1963 to 1983. Covering the span of two decades, the exhibit attends to a hotly revolutionary period in American history that witnessed the Civil Rights Movement, Black Power Movement, protests against the Vietnam War, Watergate, the space race, and second wave feminism, among other things. With more than 150 artworks from more than 60 artists, Soul of a Nation provides an extended look into how artists worked individually, in communities, and in collectives to create pieces that responded to societal pressures, setbacks, and triumphs.

By bringing together works of print, photography, performance, painting (figuration and abstraction), assemblage, and sculpture in one exhibit, Soul of a Nation demonstrates the varied aesthetic practices black artists utilized to make sense of the world as well as bold forms of experimentation undertaken to create new aesthetics altogether.

When Soul of a Nation first exhibited at the Tate Modern in London on July 12, 2017, the show co-curated by Mark Godfrey and Zoe Whitley, along with assistant curator, Priyesh Mistry, preceded the violence that erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia by exactly one month. No one painting better exemplified the tensions that mounted in Charlottesville than Norman Lewis’s “America the Beautiful” (1960). On first glance, the painting depicts white spotted streaks against a pitch-black backdrop. But a closer look reveals the peaked hoods of the Ku Klux Klan marching with flaming crosses. In 2017, “America the Beautiful” suggested all too vividly that the dreams of civil rights leaders had hardly been realized. In 2018 (and now 2019), the same painting spurs a new set of questions in the Brooklyn Museum: Which parts of America are beautiful? If there is indeed beauty to be found in this country where might it reside? Who will show us?

“America The Beautiful” (1960), Norman Lewis

Whereas Soul of a Nation’s inclusion at the Tate Modern offered viewers in the United Kingdom one of the first opportunities to see late twentieth century black American art on display in one gallery, the exhibit’s premiere at the Brooklyn Museum in September 2018 seems like a natural extension of the Museum’s ongoing commitment to black diasporic art and culture. In fact, those familiar with some of the more recent exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum might understand Soul of a Nation, assembled by assistant curator and Ph.D. candidate in English and African American Studies at Yale University, Ashley James, as in conversation with We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965 – 1985 (April to September 2017) or The Legacy of Lynching: Confronting Racial Terror in America (July to October 2017).

But like all major cultural institutions, the Brooklyn Museum, too, once struggled with questions concerning representation and accessibility. In 1968, responding to a set of protestors who accused the Museum for failing to feature artwork from black artists in their surrounding neighborhood, the Brooklyn Museum formed a Community Gallery. Under the direction of activist and curator, Henri Ghent, the Community Gallery not only provided exhibition space for local artists, but it also supplemented exhibitions with newsletters, an Artists in Residence program, and neighborhood discussions.  

With this particular institutional history in mind, Soul of a Nation not only complements previous shows, but it also continues to raise awareness about the breadth of black artistic expression locally, nationally, and internationally.

Soul of a Nation starts on the fifth floor of the Museum where it is organized geographically. The show fittingly begins in New York in 1963 featuring 15 painters including Romare Bearden, Charles Alston, Hale Woodruff, and Norman Lewis who comprised the Spiral Group. The Spiral Group also included one woman, Emma Amos, who at the age of 25 was the youngest member of the group.

Initially formed with the intention of organizing a bus trip to the March on Washington, the group began meeting regularly in Bearden’s studio to discuss whether art should respond to politics and if such a thing as a “Negro” aesthetic existed. At the time, Bearden had begun creating collages, which would become a signature characteristic of his oeuvre. However, other artists such as Lewis and Alston made paintings that altered between figuration and abstraction or sometimes considered the two together.

The Spiral Group never did settle on a single aesthetic but in 1965 they held one show in Greenwich Village where each artist produced his or her social commentary in black and white. As such, some of the works featured in this section of Soul of a Nation include Romare Bearden’s massive photomontages alongside Norman Lewis’s “Processional (aka Procession)” (1965).

“Pittsburgh Memory” (1964), Romare Bearden

Adjacent to the Spiral Group is a smaller display that contains photography from The Kamoinge Workshop. “Kamoinge” is Kenyan for “a group of people working together.” Made of black photographers who assembled in Harlem in 1963, the group operated under the leadership of Roy DeCarava, whose use of velvety shadows and dark tonal ranges created an unparalleled richness to his work. While not all Kamoinge members shared DeCarava’s aesthetic choices part of what drew them together was their attentiveness to, even reverence for, black quotidian matters. To that end works in this section capture urban life, familial relationships, and activism that unfolded across New York City.

While the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 may have intimated that the nation was prepared to confront its history of racial exclusion, the vitriol that accompanied the years immediately before and after this bill told another story. The assassination of Medgar Evers in 1963, Malcolm X in 1965, and Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 inspired a new generation of black artists to explicitly address racial injustice.  

In New York, black artists made demands on the art world that established new institutions. For instance, both the Studio Museum and El Museum del Barrio opened in 1968 and 1969 respectively in Harlem and East Harlem. 1969 marked the founding of the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC), a group that advocated for the hiring of African American curators in New York City museums.

Paying homage to this moment, Soul of a Nation prominently displays Elizabeth Catlett’s massive mahogany sculpture, “Black Unity” (1968). Behind Catlett’s “Black Unity” hangs Faith Ringgold’s “The Flag is Bleeding” (1967), a harrowing painting of white and black faces peering through bloodied stars and stripes. Taken together these two works articulate the fraught relationship between racial pride and American nationalism. They point to a country that never was and still is not able to honor, let alone account for, the lived experiences of black Americans.

“Black Unity” (1968), Elizabeth Catlett

Another gallery on the fifth floor contains pieces inspired by the Watts Rebellion in 1965 with work from Betye Saar, Melvin Edwards, Noah Purifoy, and John Outterbridge, each of whom worked in assemblage. Most striking is Saar’s “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima” (1972) that repositions a derogatory mammy figurine by painting her with a broom in one hand and a riffle in the other. Credited by Angela Davis for initiating the black women’s movement, Saar’s “Liberation of Aunt Jemima” is a clarion call for justice.

“The Liberation of Aunt Jemima” (1972), Betye Saar

The largest gallery on the fifth floor, which features the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC) from the South Side of Chicago, is hard to miss not because of its size but because of its extravagant colors. Largely known for their “Wall of Respect” mural, OBAC painted images of writers, athletes, dancers, and civic leaders across the country.  

With the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. several OBAC members formed the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (AfriCOBRA) to more explicitly address liberation causes. Utilizing a similar bright neon color palette particular to OBAC, AfriCOBRA unveiled kaleidoscopic portraits of leaders such as Malcolm X and Angela Davis.

“Revolutionary (Angela Davis)” (1971), Wadsworth A. Jarrell

If the fifth floor of Soul of a Nation takes geography as its organizing principle, then the fourth floor cultivates a space based on aesthetic exploration.  

However, before one can even enter the fourth floor exhibit they are greeted by Sam Gilliam’s most stunning piece, “Carousel Change” (1970). Draped marvelously from the ceiling, “Carousel Change,” which is neither paining nor sculpture, stops you in your tracks. Literally. Without fail each day I visited the Brooklyn Museum so captivated were visitors by its majestic presence – indeed it looks like an elevated crown – that the stairway remained bottled necked. Whereas, ordinarily this type of foot traffic poses a problem instead it provided a welcomed opportunity to stop, look again, and relish in Gilliam’s creative genius. Much like the rest of Soul of a Nation, Gilliam’s “Carousel Change” makes you wonder what it took – what kind of labor, what kind of societal circumstances, what kind of courage – to make this.  

“Carousel Change” (1970), Sam Gilliam

The remainder of the fourth floor explores issues as teasingly diverse as how to represent black bodies, how to engage with surfaces, and how to parse the relationship between movement and action. The artwork here, like Gilliam’s “Carousel Change,” is not intended purely for viewership but rather to be experienced. Artists like Joe Overstreet and Sengu Nengudi deliberately push the limits of what is expected of certain materials.

The very last section of Soul of a Nation – one that could be easily overlooked – is a small room with music from Nina Simone, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, and Billie Holiday looping on repeat set against a recorded performance of Houston Conwill’s “Cake Walk” (1983). In a not so subtle send-off, visitors are reminded to keep their ears peeled as they leave remembering that sight is but one way to experience the past.

Soul of a Nation provides a thorough examination of what is possible when people choose to express themselves, even assert themselves, in a changing nation, a nation they wish to see changed.

The extraordinary richness that is Soul of a Nation necessarily begs the question, “how does one begin to organize a show of this magnitude?” Responding to this point exactly, James said, “[i]t really required me to believe that I could do it. I credit my institution for giving me a large responsibility. That first gesture of faith in me was essential. But I didn’t let a doubt around whether or not it was something I could accomplish ever really enter the picture.”

This fearlessness that undergirds James’s response – this indisputable boldness of vision – strikes me as similar to what I imagine inspired the artists in Soul of a Nation. With no single black aesthetic that could represent the multiple revolutions from the 1960s to 1980s, artists had to believe just as much in what they were doing as how they were doing it. With little time to hesitate, they needed to act and act courageously no less. The products of that courage – the results of their daring experimentation – is an exhibit worthy of many trips even if that means making the trek to Brooklyn from the Bronx.


Sasha Panaram (@SashaPanaram) is a Ph.D. student (ABD) in English at Duke University. A Georgetown University alumna, her scholarly interests are in Black diasporic literature, black feminisms, and visual cultures.

A Changing Nation, A Nation in Need of Change: Review of Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black

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