Soul Of A Nation: Art In The Age Of Black Power at Tate Modern

London’s Tate Modern is currently home to the ‘Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power’ exhibition which traces the beginnings of Black Art and the direction it has taken through the decades since the height of the civil rights movement.

The exhibition celebrates the work of black artists in the United States and takes the viewer on an electrifying visual journey from black and white paintings, to vibrant multi-coloured paintings and murals, photography, clothing designs, alongside collages and sculptures made from cultural symbols and paraphernalia. The pieces created by the artists were used as ways to provoke and confront the norms and expectations of a stagnant, oppressive society.

Many of the artworks contain references to heroic figures from the civil rights movement, in homage to political leaders such as Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, and musician John Coltrane. Andy Warhol’s famous painting of Muhammad Ali is also displayed.

The exhibition opens with art from a collective named ‘Spiral’, who were committed to only showing artwork that was in black and white. This room displays pieces by Norman Lewis, Romare Bearden, and Reginald Gammon. The group’s ambition was originally to discuss their position in American society and their work has since become a motivating source of inspiration for younger black artists.

A particularly strong piece in this exhibition is Archibald Motley’s painting ‘The First One Hundred years: He Amongst You Who is Without Sin Shall Cast the First Stone; Forgive Them Father For They Know Not What They Do’ (c.1963-1972). Motley’s painting uses blood reds and eerie blue hues to depict a dark, nightmarish vision. A Klansman’s burning cross shares the scene with a sacrifice of a crucifixion. The faces of assassinated leaders Martin Luther King Junior and former presidents John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln are shown, hovering over a lynched body.

The painting shows the horrors endured and the darkness of the times, and the divisions between black and white people in the United States. After the completion of this painting, Motley never painted again.

Other rooms lay host to art inspired by historical items such as clothing designs, WANTED posters, and fragments of rubble from the destruction of peaceful protests that turned violent.

Amongst the pictures is an installation, ‘Fred Hampton’s Door 2’ (1975), which is a statement piece against Chicago police who murdered Fred Hampton, a young Black Panther. Black Panther were an organisation that believed the non-violent campaign of Martin Luther King had failed, which led them to take on their own more violent public stance, patrolling the streets in African neighbourhoods to protect residents from acts of police brutality. There are also original clippings from The Black Panther newspaper, which are shown alongside the works of Emory Douglas who said: “the ghetto itself is a gallery”.

As the exhibition continues, the direction of the art takes a bolder turn, with artists using more bright colours and abstract designs. Jack Whitten used his Afro-comb as a tool to paint ‘Homage to Malcolm’ (1970), to manipulate black paint to reveal layers of red and green underneath. The triangular shape appropriately pays homage to Malcolm X, who visited the pyramids in the early 1960s.

Many of the artists featured drew from their own personal experiences and interests to create their art. Some used political figures in their work while others connected their love of jazz musicians like John Coltrane.  Some artists and black activists believe that colourful, abstract paintings could not connect to the lives of Black Americans. However, Frank Bowling was in favour of this type of Black Art and strongly argued its case. Bowling argued that these artists were able to ‘re-route fashion and current art convention to ‘signify’ something different' to black viewers than to white ones.

This exhibition invites visitors to an education in modern African American history and offers a rare opportunity to discover art that not only rose from a political strife for societal integration, a strong sense of pride, courage and cultural heritage but also became highly influential in American artistic styles and movements. 'Soul of a Nation' not only raises the great causes behind the artists’ work but also reminds us of the great artistic legacy of the Black Art movement, which continues to influence artists not only in America but from all backgrounds around the world.

'Soul Of A Nation: Art In The Age Of Black Power' is showing at Tate Modern London until 22nd October 2017.  More information may be found here.