Black Power Comes to Tate Modern in an Urgent Show Charting a Movement’s Rise

Tate Modern’s project of exploring less-visited art histories has hitherto favored work by artists that, by dint of either gender or geography, have not received the attention they deserve. That in 2017 this project should extend to a major show of mid-century works by African American artists—almost all little known in the UK—is simultaneously shocking and, alas, not that surprising at all.

There are many parallel narratives running through “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power”—Tate Modern’s outstanding summer exhibition—but conspicuous among them is the fight for presence, visibility, and value.

For one, there’s a pervasive lack of nurture: Phillip Lindsay Mason’s The Deathmakers, (1968), a chilling painting showing Malcolm X’s corpse raising an accusing finger at the skeletal white policemen carrying his body, could not be included in the show because no record could be found of its sale or ownership. A photograph showing Noah Purifoy leaning against his sculpture Totem (c.1966) indicates that it was originally almost double the height of the version on show, suggesting that segments of it were broken or lost over time.

These are just two examples from the roll call of art destroyed, lost, or hidden in storage, unseen for decades. The backstory of how curators Zoe Whitley and Mark Godfrey tracked down the works for “Soul of a Nation” would likely make for some fascinating reading in itself. It would be interesting to know, too, how many works required serious TLC from the conservation department before going on display: as it is, the show pops and sparkles with colour and clean, glossy surfaces.

The works are shown in loose clusters of alliance: there are rooms dedicated to Chicago’s AfriCOBRA and New York’s Spiral groups, and artists associated with the Manhattan gallery Just Above Midtown, as well as abstract art, photography, and portraiture. Each suggests different questions concerning the role of the artist engaged with African American identity in this turbulent era in the USA: where should art be shown? What audience should it be for? Could there be such as thing as a “Black Art”? Did artists have a duty to work for and represent their community? What materials should they use? Should they fight for representation in the mainstream or forge an alternative system?

“Soul of a Nation” makes a virtue of its artists’ diverse strategies. Here we find the crisp and provocative graphic works created by Emory Douglas for the back cover of Black Panther Newspaper, and documentation of the (now destroyed) Wall of Respect, a mural painted on a public wall in the South Side of Chicago by OBAC (the Organization of Black American Culture).

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Chris Alexakisart