Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, Tate Modern

This exhibition celebrates the work of Black artists working in America through 20 years of turbulent times from 1963 to 1983. Rupert Parker takes a look

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In USA, in the early 60’s, the Civil Rights Movement and the emergence of Black Power led to major issues in music, sport and literature. The world of art was also in turmoil, producing vibrant paintings, photographs, prints and sculpture as artists struggled to define and question whether there was a Black aesthetic. Featuring more than 150 works by over 60 artists, many on display in the UK for the first time, this exhibition is a unique opportunity to see how American cultural identity was re-shaped at a time of social unrest and political struggle.

There are twelve rooms, dedicated to different themes and the show opens in 1963 with the formation of the Spiral Group, a New York collective. Just before the historic March on Washington a group of artists’ met specifically to ask what black art could, or should, be. They decided to work only in black and white and Reginald Gammon’s Freedom Now has black figures marching towards you, holding their placards of protest. Opposite is Norman Lewis’s Procession which first seems to be a geometric abstract, but then you see it’s the triangular hoods of the Ku Klux Klan with torches and burning crosses.

Indeed it’s this opportunity to get up close which makes this exhibition special. Collages, which feature in the first room, would otherwise appear flat in reproduction, show dense textures and are worth examining closely. Benny Andrews’s Did the Bear Sit Under a Tree shows an angry man waving his fists to the side of a furled Stars and Stripes – he’s all 3D with his figure rendered in coarse sacking, a zip for his mouth and a projecting pyramid of a nose.

Melvin Edwards’s Curtain (for William and Peter) is a terrifying wall of dangling barbed-wire, supporting a line of chains. The message is obvious but Edwards claims that he used the wire as a “linear material” with kinks and it has a strange primitive beauty. Betye Saar goes one stage further with her Sambo’s Banjo which contains an image of a lynched man inside the full size instrument case. She also alludes to Man Ray, with I’ve Got Rhythm where a blackened corpse sits on the needle of a metronome. Attached to the lid is a newspaper cutting about somebody lynched for refusing to dance the white man’s tune.

But don’t get the idea that this exhibition is just about black agit-prop, although the colourful afro-psychedelic posters by Wadworth Jarrell and his colleagues from the AfriCOBRA (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists) movement won’t disappoint. His Black Prince, an Op Art portrait of Malcolm X, composed of the letters used in one of his speeches, is a classic example and it obviously inspired many album covers of the period.

Portraits feature in a room dedicated to Black Heroes include boxers, writers, and painters, such as Andy Warhol’s portrait of Muhammad A, and Bob Thompson’s painting of the writer LeRoi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka). Barkley Hendricks’s paintings include What’s Going On, based on Marvin Gaye’s classic song, which features a group of cool “brothers and sisters”, one of them naked. Another is a self-portrait of the artist himself, naked except for socks and hat and one hand, almost but not quite, covering his genitals.

There’s much to enjoy here, not least the photography room, Black Light, which features the work of Roy DeCarava who did all his own printing. His extraordinary handling of a dark tonal range amounted to a Black aesthetic in photography, as did his choice of subject matter. He documented the everyday lives of people in the New York neighbourhoods of Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant and took shots of jazz musicians and civil rights leaders.

This is an epic show dealing with an important subject, treated sensitively and imaginatively. There’s much to enjoy here and it makes a useful introduction to a period of American history that some might think belong in the past. Rather the reverse is true and many of the questions the show poses still have strong resonance today. Think about the soul of Donald Trump’s troubled nation.

Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power is at Tate Modern from 12 July – 22 October 2017.