A New Exhibition Goes Inside the “Soul of a Nation”
Artwork: Lorraine O’Grady, Art Is (Girlfriends Times Two), 1983/2009. Courtesy of the artist and Alexander Grey Associates, NY.
On June 16, 1966, Stokely Carmichael stood before a crowd of 3,000 in a park in Greenwood, Mississippi, who had gathered to march in place of James Meredith, who had been wounded during his solitary “Walk Against Fear” in an effort to integrate the University of Mississippi.
Carmichael, who had been arrested after setting up camp, took to the stage with fire in his gut. “We’ve been saying ‘Freedom’ for six years,” the newly appointed chairman of the SNCC announced, “What we are going to start saying now is ‘Black Power!’”
With those words, Carmichael did more than change the paradigm for Civil Rights, he transformed the language of race itself. Up until that time, Americans had been using the word “Negro,” taken from the Spanish slave trade. It’s linguistic resemblance to the “N” word was all-too evident; the Spanish word for “Black” that was commonly used had been corrupted by English speakers and infested with pathological hatred, fear, and rage.
Carmichael embraced the word “Black” while simultaneously making the case that “Negro” was the oppressor’s term of diminution and disrespect. Malcolm X, who had had been killed a year earlier, was also a proponent for the word “Black.” By the decade’s end, Ebony was using it exclusively, helping to guide the group towards a self-chosen identity that the rest of the nation came to use.
Why does this matter? Because we think in words; the very terms we use to describe the world, and the connotations they hold, inform our beliefs and perceptions, whether we realize it or not. “Black Power” began in the very naming of the act. It was a means of transforming identity from one that was given to that which was claimed.
In doing so, the Civil Rights Movement evolved in turn—and with the United States government’s execution of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the die was cast. The peaceful protests met with militarized violence became a thing of that past as groups like the Black Panthers organized a 10 Point Program that followed the Constitution to the letter of the law—including the Second Amendment right to bear arms.
As the citizens of this nation organized themselves to fight for the basic human rights guaranteed under the law, artists played a vital role in spreading the word, from Black Panther Party’s Culture Minister Emory Douglas, who declared “The ghetto itself is the gallery,” to David Hammons, who created the double self-portrait Black First, America Second 1970, saying, “I feel it is my moral obligation as a black artist to try to graphically document what I feel socially.”
Hammons’ portrait visually expresses W.E.B. DuBois‘ famed “double-consciousness” that exists as a result of the schism cleaved into the psyche of Black people since the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade first began. It is the awareness that the double standard as defined by the imperialist powers of Europe and their descendants: the use of double talk, disinformation, and destruction to wage war on the people that they, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, are named as their “equals.”
Because we think in words, thought is easily corrupted. Logic does not need to follow a rational premise, it simply needs to follow itself. As a result, words can be used to manipulate, obfuscate, and delude. People, for the most part, are empirical creatures inclined to trust cliché over critical thought. This is why you find most people will agree: “Seeing is believing.”
Enter the artist.
The Tate Modern, London, has just opened a major exhibition of work that looks at this vital period of transformation in American life. Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power is a tour-de-force, showcasing more than 150 words by over 60 artists made between 1963 and 1983 including Romare Bearden, Dawoud Bey, Adger Cowans, Roy DeCarava, Emory Douglas, Louis Draper, David Hammons, Barkley L. Hendricks, Archibald Motley, Alice Neel, Lorraine O’Grady, Faith Ringgold, Betye Saar, Ming Smith, Alma Thomas, and Andy Warhol, among others.
The exhibition runs through October 22, 2017, and will travel to Crystal Bridges, Bentonville, AR (February 2–April 23, 2018) and the Brooklyn Museum, NY (September 7, 2018-February 2, 2019). The show is accompanied by a masterful catalogue published by the Tate/D.A.P., which features substantial essays that provide much-needed insights into this vastly underserved and broadly neglected period of art history And, as no artistic study of Black America would be complete without ample consideration of the music it makes, Soul Jazz Records is releasing Soul of a Nation, featuring 13 tracks central to the movement, from Gil-Scott Heron to Roy Ayers Ubiquity.
Soul of a Nation opens in 1963 with the formation of the Spiral Group, a New York-based collective of Black artists that focused on how to relate and respond to living in the United States. At a time when the apartheid laws of Jim Crow were still on the books, they looked inward to build spaces for art within their own communities.
That same year, the Kamoinge Workshop was founded in Harlem, with 15 members dedicated to using the photography to “reflect a concern for truth about the world, about society, and about themselves.” To this day, they are the longest-standing photography collective in the United States. The artists in the group, including Roy DeCarava, Ming Smith, and Louis Draper, did not simply document what they saw; they used the camera as a tool to paint pictures of Black life as they knew it to be: soulful, spiritual, and poetic scenes of joy and pain.
As the Black Power movement took hold, AfriCOBRA (the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists) formed in Chicago in 1967 and became the only group to produce a manifesto for Black Art, which was centered around providing art to the communities in the form of large-scale public murals depicting contemporary and historic figures of Black history. Today, it would simply be known as street art, but 50 years ago, at a time when images of Black men and women were scarce, it was a revolutionary movement.
Soul of a Nation continues forward with openly political work, where artists like Emory Douglas became vital parts of the revolution. As the artist for the Black Panther Party newspaper, Douglas’s art was literally held in the hands, made for populist appeal and affordability so that it could reach far and wide. The ability to distribute his work across the nation to local BPP chapters sparked a dialogue with other artists who quickly took to using their talents to tell stories.
By the 1970s, a decade into the movement, the styles begin to evolve, embracing the power of abstraction to redefine the way we see the world. Here we see the ways in which fine artists bring the issues and concerns of Black America inside the art world, showing in galleries and museums and adding new narratives and perspectives to the conversation.
Soul of a Nation is by no means exhaustive, but it is intense, providing a wide array of perspectives that show the return of figurative works, sculpture, performance art, and the role of Black women in a traditional male space. The show reveals the layers of complexity, nuance, and dialogue within the community that are so deeply immersed in the traditions of Black culture that David Hammons’ declaration in his double-self portrait becomes crystal clear. In a country that forces people to live double lives and code-switch, the depth of knowledge, wisdom, and understanding of its artists is one of its greatest gifts.
Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Aperture Online, and Feature Shoot. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.