Tate Modern’s African-American Art exhibition: Soul of a Nation – who are the must see artists?

Soul of a Nation: Black Power in the art market

One of the most extraordinary aspects of this exhibition is that the Tate (the most prolific contemporary art museum in Europe) has taken so long to stage it.

Barkley L. Hendricks Icon for My Man Superman (Superman Never Saved any Black People – Bobby Seale) 1969 Collection of Liz and Eric Lefkofsky

The rich and tortuous history  of African-Americans during the civil rights movement is a period burgeoning with luminous examples of political leadership and creative giants who have been overshadowed in the public eye by the obsessive coverage of millennial African-American pop culture.

Curator Mark Godfrey told the BBC: “We’ve done shows about American art for decades – it was a question of why hadn’t we done one on African-American art?…………..And there was every reason to do it as these are great artists making important work. We felt it was important to tell the story of this 20-year period when they were asking questions about the black aesthetic and what it means………..It’s a cohesive set of questions and a varied set of answers.” Over 13 New York  African American artists formed an artists’ collective known as Spiral Group in the same year that Martin Luther King gave his “I had a dream” speech.   The group included, among others, the founders Romare Bearden  Hale Woodruff and Charles Alston (whose work is available at the Jerald Melberg Gallery, the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery and the Bill Hodges Gallery.

So, who are the must see artists?

Without doubt, the iconic image used to publicise the show by Barkley L. Hendricks “Icon for My Man Superman (Superman Never Saved any Black People – Bobby Seale)”  is the piece most art lovers will remember when this show closes.  Hendricks, who tragically died in April this year experienced a late renaissance in his career in his sixties but missed the record breaking prices his pieces fetched at an auction at Sotheby’s.

Not that he would have cared, he memorably said in an interview with Art News, “No artist deserves anything, Van Gogh didn’t get squat in his lifetime.”

Black Children Keep Your Spirits Free by Carolyn Lawrence (1972)

Another must-see is Carolyn Lawrence, a Chicago born African-American feminist born in 1940 whose mural-esque pieces are both arresting and engaging and sprung the advent of Kool-Aid colours.

A work of African-American art history on public display for the first is “Homage to Malcolm” a piece in reverence to Malcolm X by artist Jack Whitten who was awarded the National Medal of Arts Prize by Barack Obama and is represented by the prestigious Hauser & Wirth Gallery. As a white man born in the racially charged state of Alabama, he controversially marched with Martin Luther King in 1957.

In a discussion with Brooklyn Rail, the US contemporary culture magazine in February, he noted that “Going back to Martin Luther King, Jr.—when I met him in ’57, I believed in him. I believed in the whole concept of non-violence…….On that march we had to make a vow that whatever happened, we wouldn’t fight back. I witnessed evil. I saw hatred coming out of white people. They attacked us, threw shit and piss on us. We made it all the way to the state capital building as they were hitting us with sticks. I did it then, but I made a vow, I would never put myself in that position again………

In respond to the question, how did it change your understanding of Dr. King’s ideas on non-violent resistance?  Whitten answered…”It only works with civilized people. If society is brute and vulgar enough, it doesn’t work. Luckily, to a large extent, as bad as America has been, it’s fairly civilised……”.  One can see in this sentence how his approached veered in favour of the interventionist stance taken by Malcolm X.

Homage to Malcolm, 1970

What this exhibition aptly demonstrates is that African-Amercian art history is not just about art and history, it’s a cultural lens through which the opinions and experiences of artists document the journey of a minority, oppressed group who now (arguably) dominate popular contemporary urban culture.