Review: Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power

July 13, 2017
  • Rating: ★★★★★
Tate Modern

The most striking image in this powerful new exhibition is entitled Injustice Case. Artist David Hammons used his body to imprint directly onto a canvas the image of a black man gagged and tied to a chair, which is exactly how Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale appeared at his 1970 trial for conspiracy to incite violence. Framed by a sliver of the American flag, it’s a visceral, painful piece of art, evoking both suffering and the righteous indignation of protest.

Nearby is Fred Hampton’s Door 2, an actual front door painted a gaudy red that drips symbolically onto the doorstep, its wooden surface pocked with bullet holes; a memorial to its namesake who was shot through his own door by police.

Black artists, and by extension black art, has been so marginalised throughout history that the first collectives of African-American painters and poets in the early 1960s were forced to mull the most fundamental of questions. What is black art? Who is it for? Where should it be displayed (most mainstream galleries wouldn’t accept their work)?

These questions led them down wildly different paths: some tackled brutality head on, painting haunting images of lynchings and KKK rallies and frenetic, bloody depictions of the race riots. But there were also abstractionists from the east coast, and illustrators working for the Black Panther magazine who created political cartoons borrowing from both pop art and Russian modernist traditions. Others painted black sportsmen and musicians and artists – people unforgivably overlooked in art history – or made African-inspired folk art, or works defined by explosions of rhythm and colour, inseparable from the music that inspired them.

This is a big exhibition, and yet it still feels constricted. There’s so much to show, so many artists who have been given such criminally short shrift, so much to catch up on.

First published in City A.M.