Thursday, 5 October 2017

'Soul Of A Nation' at Tate Modern

'Soul Of A Nation' at Tate Modern is subtitled 'Art in the Age of Black Power' and covers art produced by black or Afro-Americans between 1963-1983, the peak years for the civil rights movement and black consciousness. It includes all sorts of exhibits from paintings to photography, sculptures and mobiles, screen prints, big chunks of cloth and even a couple of dresses. There's all-sorts to look at and explore and the poster boy for the exhibition (and cover of the catalogue) is a self-portrait by Barkley Hendricks titled 'Icon for my Superman (Superman Never Saved Any Black People - Bobby Seale)' from 1969. My powers of observation must be waning because I didn't realise until I read the notice beside the painting that he doesn't have any pants on.

The exhibits are grouped by theme or by art group, generally based in a particular city. My favourite was in Room 5 of the exhibition that displayed works from AfriCOBRA in Chicago. AfriCOBRA stands for African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists, a title I love. I also loved the colours of their works which were glorious. I immediately thought of Fahrelnissa Zeid (whose exhibition was on in the other Tate Modern building and which I'd just seen) and of the Delaunays, of course. But I suspect the real influence is late 60s psychedelia.

AfriCOBRA wanted their works seen by the most people possible so they were reproduced as posters so people could buy them for their walls at home, a good move that must've also brough in some much-needed revenue. They incorporated words and slogans in their painting to hammer the message home, such as 'Uphold Your Men' by Carolyn Lawrence, 'Wake Up' by Gerald Williams and 'Unite' by Barbara Jones-Hoga (all from 1971 and pictured above).

My favourite in this section was a painting from a photo of Angela Davis that was circulating while she was in prison in 1972. It's titled 'Revolutionary' by Wadsworth Jarrell and shows Angela speaking into a hand-held microphone at a rally and all the swirling colours around her make up words and phrases from that speech she was making. I would've had that poster on my wall back then if I'd known it existed. Can you see the bandolier across her left shoulder? That was on display in a glass case beside the painting and, rather than be filled with bullets it's filled with different colours of chalk - ammunition for an artist.

A similar type of painting from AfriCOBRA is 'Black Prince', again by Wadsworth Jarrell, from 1971 that shows Malcolm X. Perfect for a poster.

This room - and the works - seemed to be among the most overtly political and challenging, possibly because of incorporating words into the paintings. They are also, possibly, some of the proudest paintings, depicting people of intellect and influence and displaying some of their words in bright and evocative paintings. I think they're actually very clever, a very good way of spreading their messages.

Another great painting in this AfriCOBRA room was 'Black Children Keep Your Spirits Free' by Carolyn Mims Lawrence from 1972 that actually uses the title of the painting as its centrepiece.

There's a lot more going on in this exhibition than riots of colour. There's a lot of politics and this was summed up for me by the rather harrowing work by David Hammons from 1970 called 'Injustice Case'. It shows Bobby Seale, a co-founder of the Black Panthers bound and gagged during his court case at which he couldn't choose his own attorney or even represent himself. The image is, I think, a screen print within a frame of the American flag. His arms and legs are bound, a gag around his mouth at his own court case. It's a difficult image to look at.

There are a few painful images to confront and it's important that we look at them, but they're not all painful. Towards the end of the exhibition is a panting by Emma Amos called 'The Babysitter' from 1973. Look at that relaxed posture and smile - this is a happy person who looks after the artists' daughter so that the artist can paint. It's lovely.

One of the oddities of the exhibition is the inclusion of Andy Warhol's 'Muhammad Ali' which, as far as I'm aware, was the only work by a white artist. Is it there to include Ali as a big public figure back then speaking out for black consciousness or to show that white artists were influenced by black power? Who knows. But it's nice to see Ali included.

There's a lot going on in this exhibition and it shows us a lot of different types and movements of art. It was very busy and there seemed to be  few groups of students going round the exhibition with their guides, so I might try to go back when it might be quieter.

It was fascinating to see these works by artists and groups I'd never heard of before - and why would I, I'm in London and this is American modern history?  The comments board outside the exhibition included a couple saying that the exhibition should be taken to New York - I wonder how it would go down there in the age of trump?

The shop (in the standard 'exit through the shop' mode) has a great catalogue costing a rather silly £29.99 but the cards are 75p (although there's not many of them). The shop is flooded by groovy, funky early 70s music which you can buy on LP or CD. It has lots of books about black power but none by Angela Davis which was disappointing. I read her autobiography of life on the run from the FBI for her communist and Black Panther activities in about 1975 or 1976 and it would be good to stumble across a copy of that book again.

And, to finish off, here's the photograph that I think was used as the basis for Jarred's painting of Angela Carter. On the way into the exhibition is a row of TV sets showing footage and sound-clips from influential people and one of them is Angela. After an interview with her this photo popped up of Angela speaking into a hand-held microphone. Who knew that photo would go round the world?

The exhibition is only on for another few weeks so, if you're interested or intrigued, now would be a good time to visit the exhibition before it closes.

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