LOS ANGELES — Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power is a historical show that could not possibly feel more current. The day I visited the exhibition at the Broad, complete cell phone footage of Sandra Bland’s arrest was released, and I watched it while waiting in line. After seeing the complete video, in which the police officer’s aggression is blatantly unforgivable, I came across a news article about African American infant mortality (the rate is twice as high as for white babies) and its link to the crisis in maternal death rates for African American mothers themselves, who are three to four times more likely to suffer pregnancy-related death than white mothers. The artworks gathered in Soul of a Nation confront racially motivated violence and discrimination that has not abated, and celebrate Black identity in ways that remain urgent.
From 1963 to 1983, the two decades spanned by the traveling exhibition Soul of a Nation, African American visual artists were largely ignored by the art apparatus. At its core, this show’s mission is to correct the record of 20th-century American art history. The exhibit does an excellent job of surveying the breadth of African American art during those years by including not just famous names such as Romare Bearden, Roy DeCarava, and Betye Saar, but also less recognized individuals whose work created the fertile ground in which the most celebrated artists took root.
Enough has been written about the canonical revisions argued by Soul of a Nation that I need not repeat those discussions here. Yet there are many topics worth exploring while the show is in Los Angeles, particularly the attempt during and after the Civil Rights movement to consider the question of whether there ought to be such a thing as “Black Art” at all, and how to understand the responsibilities of a Black artist. Larry Neal, a member of the Black Arts Movement (founded by the poet Amiri Baraka to generate politically engaged art resisting Western, Eurocentric traditions), wrote that the effort “envisions an art that speaks directly to the needs and aspirations of Black America,” an encapsulation quoted in the exhibition text. Faith Ringgold and Betye Saar both contributed to the movement and are well-represented by the curatorial selection.
The Broad’s iteration of the exhibit devotes specific attention to abstract artists such as Jack Whitten, Sam Gilliam, William T. Williams, Alvin Loving, Alma Thomas, Joe Overstreet, and Howardena Pindell, whose works were received awkwardly or with hostility by other Black artists in those decades because abstraction was deemed insufficiently political. This despite the overt agenda possible in an abstract work such as Whitten’s “Homage to Malcolm” (1970), whose enormous size, black color, and triangular shape commemorate Malcolm X’s visit to the Egyptian pyramids in the 1960s. Pindell’s “Untitled” (1978), for example, is made from pieces of canvas sewn together and covered with paint, sequins, and countless paper dots made with a hole-punch. Her use of non-traditional, inexpensive materials evokes the way in which Black people, who generated America’s wealth first as enslaved people and then as victims of systemic exploitation, were shut out of the country’s largesse and had to make do with whatever materials were ready to hand.
“We Came from There to Get Here” (1970) by Joe Overstreet, who recently died at age 85, might be seen as a colorful tent-like structure whose greatest significance was moving painting off the wall and into sculptural space, an effort Overstreet championed along with his peer Sam Gilliam. But it doesn’t take long to realize that by resembling a tent the work indicates the dislocation of Black people, and its suspension suggests a daunting paradox between the brutality of lynching and an escape to the skies. Alma Thomas’s “Mars Dust” (1972) arose from her deep interest in space exploration but resonates with the galactic orientation of Afrofuturism, as exemplified by Sun Ra or Parliament-Funkadelic. Thomas’s virtuosity is on full display in this work, which achieves surprising depth through simple vertical red marks over only a few different blues.
Figurative art abounds throughout Soul of a Nation, and among the more searing images is David Hammons’s “Injustice Case” (1971), one of his body prints, a group of works given ample space in this exhibition. The print shows a man bound to a chair, gagged with hands tied behind his back, head tilted up in a gesture of pain, the entire image framed by the American flag. This work marks a judge’s order to bind and gag Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panthers, during his 1969 trial as part of the Chicago Eight. Sandra Bland’s ghost hovers around “Injustice Case,” as do the spirits of Eric Garner and all the others who have died at the hands of our criminal justice system, a system that seems more criminal than just. There is scarcely a work in the entire exhibition that does not demonstrate how deeply we are struggling with the same issues that concerned Black artists a half-century ago.
The impact of the Black Arts Movement on contemporary art is undeniable: many highly recognized African-American artists today make work indebted to Neal’s aesthetic conception, including Kara Walker, Carrie Mae Weems, Kerry James Marshall, and Glenn Ligon, just to name a few. The art market’s pendulum has recently swung from abstraction back to figuration, especially figuration that overtly addresses the politics of representation. Fads in visual art cycle every decade or so, but this latest change is doubtless in large part a reaction to our national political crisis. It is as necessary now as it was in the 1960s and ’70s that art conjures strong images exploring the lives of people oppressed by America’s dominant culture.
Returning to the call for “art that speaks directly to the needs and aspirations of Black America,” it is noteworthy that Neal said nothing about the necessity to produce representational images. People often view representation and abstraction as two sides of a dichotomy, but this is a failure to understand the promiscuity of visual language. It strikes me that the “needs and aspirations” of all people come down to a desire for security and freedom. In art, that means the opportunity to develop and explore an aesthetic vocabulary that speaks to whatever feels most necessary, which will inevitably bind up issues of identity and politics along with a host of other concerns. Whether art is figurative, representational, or abstract is beside the point.
Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, 1963-1983 continues at the Broad (221 S Grand Ave, Los Angeles, CA) through September 1. The Broad presentation is curated by Sarah Loyer, Associate Curator and Exhibitions Manager.