Sunday, March 4, 2018

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

You might think that an exhibition with a title like, “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” might open in Los Angeles or New York but would you believe The Tate Modern in London?!  As I am writing it is in its second venue at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, AR ... founded by Walmart heir Alice Walton.  Unfortunately, we have not been there yet but all reports are raves!  Just as surprising in my mind is the fact that I read about the show first in Business Week magazine.

As the press release from Crystal Bridges generously notes the show was developed by the Tate.  The curators for the show are Mark Godfrey and Zoe Whitley at the latter and Lauren Haynes for Crystal Bridges

In the introduction to the catalog the curators from the Tate write, ”There is no America without African American”.  Thank goodness for those who observe us objectively and not xenophobic-ly as we so often see ourselves!  As you have probably already surmised all the artists are black and the art was created between 1963 and 1983, an especially turbulent time for Black America.  The show which is a bit smaller in its second venue is organized in 12 sections, movements, geography, and civil rights being a few of them.

Here are some examples of the work in the show:

Norman Lewis’s, (1909-1979), America the Beautiful of 1960 is a black and white image with a very ironic title.  It is not the abstract image it appears to be at first.  Look closer and you will see the peaked white hoods and crosses of the Ku Klux Clan.  When abstract art was all the rage for the whites, or Anglos as I have learned to call us in the Southwest, the blacks had very different priorities to deal with!

I must admit to not being familiar with all the names  of the artists but one that is very well known to me as a big fan, is Romare Bearden (1911-1988), represented here by Pittsburgh Memory 1964.  It appears in the catalogue under a section called American Skin: Artists on Black Figuration.  His collage paintings draw from the workingman in the general populace, here accentuated by the monochromatic tones. It does not take much to imagine these two figures as steel workers, just one step above the title, slave.

Benny Andrews (1930-2006), Did the Bear Sit Under a Tree? from 1969.  I am afraid I could not find the precise meaning of the title but it is certainly a powerful statement.  Andrews grew up in the segregated American South and became a leader of black activism in the arts.  It does not take much imagination to understand “Black Power” and “Power to the People” from this painting and collage including rolled cloth of the flag and the zipper glued across the mouth of the black man.

Carolyn Mims Lawrence, (1940-), Black Children Keep Your Spirits Free 1972.  The title is right there in the center of the painting.  I find the colors and fantasy offer liberating hope, in contrast to depressingly dark, monochromatic paint.

Betye Saar’ (1926-) Rainbow Mojo from 1971 might be a positive note to end on.  I should have guessed it,--the concept for this series came out of her interest in astrology- and its bright colors create an optimistic tone.

This is a very small slice of art from the exhibition and my hope, as usual, is to have whetted your appetite to learn more.  If you are old enough, think back; if you are younger learn about the years following 1963, the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the a period of black activism, two decades that are so important to American history.

The exhibition at Crystal Bridges closes on April 23 and will travel next to The Brooklyn Museum where it will open in September.  Strange irony that where you would think the show would be born is where it ends!

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