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.
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.
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).
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.
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)