Category: Art

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

I went to an art exhibition with Harry. I was very excited to see Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power at Tate Modern in London.

soul of a nation

It features artworks made between 1963 and 1983. I was born near the beginning of this period and was a young adult by the end, so it spans all of my early life. It is recognisable as the era of the Civil Rights Movement, which prominently included the call for Black Power as one of its distinctive features, along with second-wave feminism, socialism and related movements which take an interest in the rights of the oppressed.

The art and artists in this exhibition are mainly African-American. I’m British and of course I was a child during the earlier part of this period so there was a limit to how much Black Power protest art I could be exposed to. But as a teenager I listened to hip hop, which led me to hard core rap in the early 90s and that’s where I learned about Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Dr Martin Luther King, Rodney King, Bobby Seale and all these people.

This was where the exhibition really made an impression on me, because I knew some of these names, rap music taught them to me like a history lesson. I knew Bobby Seale’s name in connection with the Black Panthers (in fact, he was a co-founder). I knew he was important. But then I was confronted with this larger-than-life-size artwork by David Hammons. It is Injustice Case, 1970. It is a body print and screen print on paper. What it shows, shockingly, is that Seale’s trial (for conspiracy to incite violence) had him bound and gagged in the courtroom. I was in shock. It’s as though Bobby Seale suddenly came to life and was right there in front of me, tied to a chair. I didn’t know that happened.

hammons

There were also several preserved copies of The Black Panther newspaper, the official newspaper of Black Power movement, which reported on important events as well as rallying readers. The newspaper featured many posters which were examples of cutting-edge 60s and 70s design by in-house BP artist Emory Davis. I love protest art, it’s full of fire and passion.

A couple more things in this exhibition that I particularly want to remember. This painting is called The First One Hundred Years and it’s by Archibald Motley (1963-72).

motley 100

It is Motley’s snapshot of the first one hundred years after the Civil War. What can you see? I spotted a hanged man, a Confederate flag, a red devil, a trumpet, a white bird, a Klansman, a wolf, crucifixion, a flaming cross, a sign that says ‘Whites Only’, and also faces – that looks like Dr Martin Luther King in the middle and Abraham Lincoln on the right. You might have noticed from the dates of this painting that it took nearly 10 years to complete. It is very unlike all of Motley’s previous work and when it was finished, he never painted anything else again.

The last painting that I want to mention is Liberation Soldiers by Wadsworth Jarrell (1972). You really need to go and visit this in person because it is huge and the colours are electrifying, I was mesmerised.

liberation soldiers

It is a portrait of five Black Panthers and features two Jarrell hallmarks. Firstly, the colours, what Jarrell himself called the “loud lime, pimp yellows, hot pinks, high-key color clothing” of fashionable African-American men of that time. Secondly, if you look at the men’s skin and hair and other areas of the painting, you will observe that things are composed by repetitions of the letter B. Every B is different to its neighbour, sometimes dramatically. Jarrell has used a technique that I now know to be chiaroscuro to contrast light and shadow to give the heads and hands their three-dimensional shapes. I find it so fascinating that these abstract B shapes, in such violent shades of orange, red, purple and yellow, can trick your brain into seeing a human face.

It took Harry and me a long time to go around this exhibition because nearly everything in it is that good and will make you stop, stare and soak up new information.

Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power is on at Tate Modern in London until 22 October.

Protest music of the time. I was just reading about this track by Black nationalist Amiri Baraka and the review said it was the centrepiece of his seminal 1972 album It’s Nation Time. It occurred to me that that was the second time I’d encountered the phrase Nation Time in as many days. I quickly realised where I’d heard it before – it must have been a phrase used on radio station K-JAH West when I was playing Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. And so we come full circle back to video games and popular entertainment which is apparently where I get my important facts. Anyway, there’s an intelligent review of Baraka’s masterpiece here.

Amiri Baraka: Who Will Survive America? (1972)

George Romero

We’ve just lost George Romero, a kind, gentle man and a creative genius who single-handedly invented the zombie genre in Western pop culture, one of the most significant, prominent and compelling genres that culture has ever known. I knew that news of his death was coming and yet I can’t believe it. I should be going to bed and instead I am at my desk, sobbing and texting people I haven’t spoken to for years because he is irreplaceable.

He had a spectacular career that spanned my entire lifetime. What will we do without him? I have no answers. George. We will miss you so much.

bub

Starry Skies, Chapter 9: Slices of Pie

I had to tell Chockney that we are done with each other. I was trying my best but it could have taken years for him to break through the iron fortress that appeared around me whenever I was in proximity with him and he started talking about commitment. I was going to let him come over and do some building work at my flat but then I had a magical third date with Harry which made me want to save my free time for him, so that meant Chockney had to be dismissed. I tried to be nice about it. I let him go.

Harry. We looked at paintings, then we had lunch, then we sat on a sofa in the book shop and looked at books about paintings. I could say a lot of things about how I felt and what I thought. Let me try instead to recall what he was saying and doing.

  • We were sleepy after lunch and when I tired of looking at books, he put his arm around me so I could rest my head on his chest.
  • If I offer him my hand, he holds it and strokes it.
  • He put his hand on my waist when we were kissing. He’s not aggressive at all. He’s very delicate and he moves slowly.
  • He made some reference to Our First Date, like it was a thing, which it was. He said happily of our three dates so far (dinner, opera, paintings) that they were all really nice days. I’m glad he’s enjoying himself, I certainly am. I would look at paintings anyway but it is so nice when you have a young companion who kisses you and says intelligent things.
  • He said that I am the first person who has had anything positive to say about his work. Everyone else he has tried to date disapproves. But it is his job. It’s a lot easier sustaining or even starting a dating relationship when the other person isn’t dead set against your job. In subsequent text messages, he was quite chatty on the subject.
  • I invited him over to my place, he is coming on Sunday. He said ‘afternoon or evening?’ and I said ‘afternoon, but don’t book anything for the evening, we’ll go out and have dinner locally’. This reply made him look happy.

When I see him, it will be our fourth date. And that’s why Chockney had to go.

We went to see Wayne Thiebaud at White Cube in Piccadilly. I absolutely love WT, he is one of my favourite artists. American post-war painting of cakes, slices of pie, sweets, lollipops, ice creams, bubble gum machines. Brush strokes are thick. Shadows are heavy and long. Lollipops lie slain. Donuts are kept in isolation. Quite often, pairs of things appear but are not allowed to have any contact. It criticises mass-produced, synthetic, post-war, commercial food at the same time as participating in it. The items are both grotesque and strangely delicious looking. I think so, anyway. I would eat most of the things painted by Wayne Thiebaud. Harry didn’t agree on this point and I expect that’s why he’s thinner than I am. The White Cube exhibition is on until 2 July. If you can’t make it to the exhibition, I might point out that there are numerous lovely books about Thiebaud here and you should probably have one for your art library.

Starry Skies, Chapter 7: Paint

Not the kind that artists use to make paintings. The kind you put on your face.

OK, first things first. Harry has finished his exams and we had our long-awaited second date. We went to the opera together, in fact we went to see the Charles Court Opera company perform The Magic Flute because I wanted to see it again and I thought he should see it as well. I was so happy that his exams are over and we can finally date like normal people.

I am a little bit self-conscious about my appearance right now because I am getting older and mostly because I weigh a massive 164 pounds due to eating too much ice cream. I am old and I am fat. Just in time for tonight’s date, I watched a YouTube beauty vlogger and realised that I have been doing my make-up all wrong, it is out of date and I use the wrong tools. There were things I hadn’t grasped about to how apply concealer correctly, also modern trends require less eyeliner but more eyebrow. I followed this girl’s tutorial as I was getting ready to go out and the result was very pretty and took 10 years off me, which I needed, due to being so fat. So if you are not 100% sure that you are doing your make-up right, or if you are just old like me, then you should watch this because she shows you the wrong way to do things and then the right way, which is so helpful. Includes contouring and highlighting.

brushes

So I went out with Harry, we both loved the opera. It was the first one he’d been to, he said it was amazing and I agreed. Then we had dinner (tuna steak, wine). Then we went to the tube station and there was kissing, he kissed me this time, slightly assertively.

Things I remember from tonight’s date:

  • The part where he said “You’re beautiful”, and placed his hand on my bare arm to reassure me and emphasise his point. I was grateful, you don’t take beauty or compliments for granted at my age. Also, I felt that Christen’s YouTube tutorial had paid off. Win.
  • The part where he took my hand so we could navigate the crowds in Islington (he did the same thing on our first date, as I recall). The surprise of having him take my hand and pull me through the crowd. The feel of his hand in mine, his slim bones.
  • The part where we were walking together and I put my arm around his narrow waist, the shape of him, slender and firm.
  • The part where we were sitting together at dinner, he was explaining complicated maths to me and his hands were trembling with barely-suppressed excitement or anxiety, not sure which.
  • The part where he didn’t try to have sex with me. The part where we agreed to meet for a third date next week, with no suggestion on either side that it needs to involve sex. Not yet. I think we are getting to know each other.

I have a little thing for him, you can tell. I wasn’t going to follow up with Chockney because I feel safer with Harry and I’m a little afraid of Chockney’s talk about relationships and commitment and not ‘being on your own’, whatever that is supposed to mean, probably something bad. But then I texted him anyway, mainly to make sure that he wasn’t planning to show up at the Magic Flute tonight, and that’s why we now have a date planned for this Saturday.

So that’s the state of my love life. Stay tuned for more dating news, which I bring to you as it happens.

Starry Skies, Chapter 6: Chockney

I returned from Paris feeling satiated. All my romantic and physical needs had been taken care of by Alain. Maxime had been dismissed and Fyodor was far away in Russia because that’s where he lives. This left only Harry, based in London, who I was looking forward to dating as soon as he’d finished some crucial maths exams. I had no need for anything else in the meantime and I wanted to get back to work. Then people started reminding me that I promised I would come out and meet them, arrangements that I made several weeks ago when I was in another mood. I managed to deter a couple of people at least temporarily but felt I should fulfil a date for Monday evening, in fact, last night, because it had taken a while to set up. Gah. I just wanted to stay indoors and play video games or do something useful, but no, I had to put on a dress and go out.

As if my love life needed further complications, just when I’d straightened everything out, the guy turned out be really nice. So inconvenient. He is a Cockney, with a proper Cockney accent, and he is an artist, in fact, a painter, so we are calling him David Chockney, ha ha, I slay myself. He used to be a builder and then he found out he could paint and people noticed and now he’s famous. That’s the short story.

He’s my age. He’s 51. I know absolutely nothing about this age group. All my dating experience is with people in their 20s; they look attractive and they are fun and spontaneous. No-one is looking for a committed relationship and despite my romantic banter with Maxime, I’m not even sure I still know what one involves. Chockney is fit and very good looking for his age, I bet he was stunning at 25. He’s surprisingly self-effacing and softly-spoken. I would be really full of myself if I were a well-known artist. He was interesting, he knows a lot about art, even though he says he knows nothing, and he likes me. He said that he would prefer to be in a relationship. He said ‘I’ve been on my own for a long time, too long really’. These are terms that I don’t fully understand any more. I don’t know what ‘on my own’ means or how that’s different from just being alive and going about your normal, everyday business. I asked him why he wanted to be in a relationship. He said ‘Honestly, it will be better for developing my painting’ and I thought that was a good answer, if there is one. Better than some shit about being afraid to be old and alone.

Anyway. I tried to put him off as much as possible by smoking while on the date, saying ‘fuck’ and talking about my extensive experience of dating models who are half my age but he was undeterred and it seems like we’re on for a second date.

I finally get to see Harry (24) on Thursday. We’ve waited so long and so much has happened since we first met. We are going to the opera on Thursday and then we’ll see what happens. And that, readers, is the point where you are finally all caught up with Starry Skies. What an epically romantic time it has been. From this point, you know as much as I do. We will all have to wait and see what happens in upcoming episodes as Harry and Chockney become love rivals.

British Holidaymaker Drinks, Gets Tattoo

A little more Paris, just to fill you in on the remaining events. As I mentioned, after I left Alain in Paris I had a spare morning – really, most of the day – which I intended to use. So I started by going out to lunch, naturellement, and drank wine with the intention of going to the Pompidou Centre to look at some photography by Walker Evans. Most art is much more enjoyable after a couple of glasses of wine, and I say that as someone who is almost teetotal. I ambled off to the Pompidou Centre and was outraged to discover that it is closed on Tuesdays. Gah! Now what? I am in the middle of Paris in the middle of the day, I am slightly tipsy and the art I wanted to see is Not There. I walked down the street, in somewhat of a huff, and I found myself passing a shop selling art, albeit of a different kind. It was, in fact, a tattoo parlour.

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I looked at the designs on display outside the shop (very run of the mill, actually, just what you’d expect). Because I was a bit intoxicated, I briefly contemplated getting a tattoo. Then I remembered I already had one! It is 32 years old! It was once a tiny butterfly with brightly-coloured wings but over time it faded a lot and almost became indistinguishable. I went inside and asked to talk to a tattooist.

He was an extremely nice man but he spoke no English whatsoever. My French may accommodate romance but does not extend to tattoo-purchasing situations. It was like the worst possible conversation you could have with a tattooist. I was a bit drunk and neither of us could understand a word the other person was saying. Eventually we secured a contract by means of my pointing at my tattoo and making expansive gestures with my hands to signify “make it brighter”. So he did.

Before

After

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And that’s how I finally returned to London with both sunburn (Spain) and a leaky new tattoo to look after, and thus resembled every British holidaymaker ever.

The Walker Evans exhibition is on at the Pompidou Centre in Paris until 14 August. Closed on Tuesdays.

Casanova

Chapter 4 of Starry Skies will be with you tomorrow. It gets more and more romantic and exciting, I promise you. In the meantime, I need to quickly capture this before I forget about it and the moment has passed.

Just before I ran off to Spain on holiday, I went to the ballet. I went to Sadler’s Wells theatre in London; it is a venue which is dedicated to dance.

sadlers ext

sadlers int

I sent photos and text messages to the Russian boy, of course, because who else would I talk to about ballet, of all my lovers.

I was there to see Casanova, a new ballet by Kenneth Tindall, performed by the Northern Ballet company. It’s about Casanova’s life.

casanova

The sets were incredible, I was enchanted by the glittering, golden chandeliers and pillars and the immense mirrors that appeared on the stage.

It’s a modern ballet, obviously, being new, so it was not constrained in form or content by the 19th century traditions that characterise the romantic, classical ballets that I grew up with. The choreography was innovative. Also, rather importantly, Casanova was depicted as having both male and female lovers and I can’t really think of another time when I’ve seen men dancing ballet together, romantically and erotically. It was nice. It made a nice change.

If one wanted to be critical of it, I would say that I didn’t really get a sense of how Casanova’s life hung together as a coherent narrative. It felt like a series of unrelated episodes, lacking a big picture. But this did not dent my enjoyment of a spectacular and very dramatic production. Here is the trailer.

And here is another sample, showing the beautiful golden scenery that I was telling you about.

Okay, that’s all for tonight. We will resume Starry Skies tomorrow.