In this blog, James shares his reflections on a powerful exhibition at the Tate Modern in London on Black American Art from 1963 and how the struggle for black liberation in America resounded all over the world. The exhibition is very powerful and I was particularly struck by how if you are in a minority, you might have to develop innovative strategies. Black artists couldn’t get their work in the 1960s into mainstream galleries so people in the community opened one dedicated to black artists in New York with great trepidation. The result was queues around the block. Now, time for the Tate to do an exhibition dedicated to Black British Artists.
Soul of a Nation Exhibition
There is a very interesting exhibition “Soul of a Nation” at the Tate Modern, in London. This exhibition show cases some of the art work by mostly black artists at the height of the American civil rights movement. The exhibition focuses on artist work in the two decades after 1963.
When we went to the exhibition, the hall was packed with people from all ethnic groups keen to see what artists made of that era – a time of great unrest in America. As you went into the exhibition foyer there were film clips of some of the most influential black activists at the time including Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael and so on, speaking about civil rights, black consciousness, black awakening and black power.
The different rooms had different themes. The one that caught my eye was the room with the abstract paintings. What was interesting was the under current going on within the black artists community itself at the time – about “How should an artist respond to political and cultural change”, “Was there a Black art?”, “Should an artist create legible images or make abstract work?”, “Was there a choice to be made for addressing a black audience or a universal one?”. Some artist felt black artists should only focus on art that told a “black” story however there were others who felt the artists should be free to draw whatever they wanted without constraints of colour. I agree with the later view. It is a free world and one should be free to express oneself in whatever form they choose without any constraints.
Another picture that also caught my eye was one of Tommy Smith and John Carlos raising their fists in a Black Power salute on the podium at the 1968 Mexico Olympics – where they had ran first and third respectively in the 200m race. This show of “force” is perhaps regarded as one of the most overtly political statements in the history of the Olympic Games.
Also in one of the rooms was “The Wall of Respect”, this was an outdoor mural in Chicago Southside and featured images of black heroes – civic leaders, writers, musician, sports starts and dancers. The most notable absentee on the wall was James Brown (the God father of Soul), who was at the vanguard of the black awakening with hits like “Say It Loud I’m Black and Proud”.
I feel myself fortunate to have lived through this era albeit as a young whipper snapper. I saw the impact of what this awakening did to people not only in America but also in Africa. A few of us were sufficiently inspired in Africa to want to join the Black Panther movement to address the injustice being perpetuated on the black people in America. There were still others who used this as a rallying cry to denounce the apartheid regime in South Africa and to call for an African High command to fight to overthrow the apartheid government in South Africa.
Although the exhibition was mainly about black artists in America during a time of great unrest, it also resonates with all folk around the world who were aspiring for their own self-determination (independence) from their colonial masters or other oppressive regimes of the day.
The exhibition has something for everyone and is well worth visiting.
The exhibition finishes on Sunday, 22 October.
The exhibition cost £17 for Adults and free to under- 12s and members.