By Christine Lindey in Britain:
Black, proud, powerful
Saturday 26th August 2017
The radical intent of an exhibition of Afro-American art from the 1960s and 1970s impresses CHRISTINE LINDEY
Soul of the Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power
Tate Modern London SE1
FEW will associate US art of the 1960s and 1970s with Wadsworth and Jae Jarrell, Emory Douglas, Roy DeCarava or other black artists. But Tate Modern’s exhibition, with its dominant themes of accusation, affirmation and agitation, changes that perception.
By subverting mass representations of African-Americans as eye-rolling, obsequious servants with watermelon smiles, Betye Saar’s assemblages confront racist stereotypes with gut-wrenching wit. Her Liberation of Aunt Jemima transforms a kitchen notepad in the form of a broom-wielding, inanely grinning black maid into a powerful activist, by arming her with a bayonet and a black-power fist.
Sambo’s Banjo attracts with the cheery patterned lining of its opened banjo case but repels when we spot the tiny, shocking photograph of a lynched man within.
Romare Bearden’s collages and DeCarava’s black-and-white photographs of urban decay and angry or disappointed black faces cry out against oppression and poverty as soulfully as a steel-guitar riff. Yet the photographs also assert the intelligence and creativity of Afro-American musicians and thinkers such as Malcolm X and Ornette Coleman.
Other artists, including Chicago’s AfriCOBRA collective, also encouraged self-confidence and self-regard in fellow Afro-Americans. Influenced by the Black Panther Party’s community programmes, they created “positive imagery by “black people for black people” with celebratory paintings of high-profile Panther heroes such as Stokely Carmichael and the communist activist Angela Davis.
Wadsworth Jarrell explained that: “Ours was art for the people,” and they aimed to create a new black aesthetic of everyday life. They produced “shine” with silver and gold foil added to a vivid palette recalling the orange, strawberry, cherry, lemon, lime and grape of the popular Kool-Aid drinks.
Uplifting political messages were often incorporated into their mosaics of joyful colour, as in Carolyn Lawrence’s painting of children dancing to African drums inscribed with “Black Children Keep your Spirits Free” and the collective reproduced their works as cheaply available prints.
Agitation joined affirmation in Jae Jarrell’s elegant Revolutionary Suit which, superbly tailored in grey wool, wittily subverts its bourgeois connotations with its wide military bandolier whose bullets are substituted with artist’s crayons in Kool-Aid colours. Worn publicly, this was truly art as a weapon.
Aware of culture’s pivotal role in the political struggle, the Black Panther Party, when founded in Oakland, California, appointed the artist Emory Douglas as its Minister of Culture.
His full-page Revolutionary Posters appeared weekly in the Black Panther newspaper and could be bought as independent posters for $1. Adding one or two colours to the paper’s black and white pages, Douglas combined photographs with bold and fluid drawings, calling for political action and asserting Afro-American beauty and achievement.
In one, a background of the red socialist sunburst is fronted by a photograph of a happy child whose sunglasses reflect images of the Panthers’ breakfast clubs, which fed and educated the community’s children.
In Mother and Child, a young woman with a bayonet on her shoulder straddles a baby on the opposite hip.
Asserting the AfroAmerican constitutional right to carry arms was a revolutionary statement when this was widely assumed to apply solely to white people, yet blacks endured frequent police brutality.
Works intended for art galleries could be more elliptical yet equally powerful. Melvin Edwards’s Curtain (for William and Peter), functions as an ethereal installation of slim, silver threads suspended from the ceiling and hemmed with elegant loops.
But a lethal anger lurks. The threads are of barbed wire and the loops are of chains, evoking the cruelties of imprisonment and the pain of chain gangs.
The catalogue explains that “rather than being framed by sociopolitical history,” the exhibition explores “what it meant to be a black artist in the USA during the Civil Rights movement and at the birth of Black Power,” by focusing on their self-organised exhibitions, journals and galleries.
But this curious curatorial approach sidesteps most of the works’ sociopolitical content.
The terms “revolution,” “freedom,” “radical” and the names of Black Panther Party leaders dot the captions and wall texts but, without explanations of their ideological meanings and historical contexts, these are reduced to vacant, fashionable buzz words.
Significantly, socialism and communism are not mentioned, nor the importance of the pre-war precursors of the Harlem Renaissance and New Deal Afro-American art such as Jacob Lawrence and early Charles White.
Yet the curators do deserve credit for bringing so many amazing revelatory works to our attention.
Encountering numerous works which fizz with energy, visual intelligence and intellect is rare. That they do so is precisely because this art was born of anger and intent to rectify sociopolitical injustice. Not seeking individualist originality for its own sake but driven by social purpose, these artists paradoxically arrived at genuine innovation.
Go if you can, but be conscious of the timid curatorial policies.
Runs until October 22, box office: tate.org.uk.