Soul of a Nation – Art in the age of Black Power
Tate Modern’s deep and reflective review of American art during the rise of the Civil Rights Movement and Black Empowerment from 1964 into the 1980s offers and engaging insight into the mind set of the country at the time while feeling as though it has resonance to current socio political issues State side. The exhibition highlights a number of points not least the many Black American artists who did not attain the prominence nationally or globally that contemporary white artists from the period have although their work is at the very least on par. In that way the show is somewhat over due. Always a tough question for any social group, but for a marginalised section of society such as non white artists during that unsettling period in the USA’s history the notion of ‘Black art’ or Black aesthetic’ was a hot topic of debate. Does this work sit in a wider world context or is it only inward looking was an underlying contemporary question within the Black Arts community. The work clearly addressed the Black audience but could it also be universal. Just the issue of where could Black artists exhibit, publish or promote their work seems an anathema today; this was a real problem resolved by artist groups acquiring venues and creating their own press to avoid corporate prejudice with the main stream media and galleries. From within what must have felt somewhat like an isolated Black Arts ghetto at the time other questions effecting aesthetic circled around evolution, improvisation and the exploration of new concepts, art forms and materials.
The show of over 200 works includes paint, print, film, performance and photography from some 60 artists much never before exhibited. The photographic content included photomontage often with mix media interventions from Romare Bearden with pieces The Conjur Woman and The Dove both from 1964 began the exhibitions narrative. The former was Photostat copied and enlarged onto fibreboard, a period version of working analogue and scanning to up-scale. Documentary work was a strong calling among Black photographers; the first to rise to some recognition was Roy DeCarava who was the first Black photographer to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship in respect of the 1955 publication The Sweet Flypaper of Life in collaboration with poet Landston Hughes. He received wide recognition for a 1964 image called Five Men that showed the intensity of a community struck by the deaths of four girls killed in the1963 bombing of Birmingham Alabamas 16th Street Baptist Church. DeCarava was instrumental in the formation of the Kamoinge Workshop with 15 others with the objective of reflecting a concern for truth about the world, themselves and society. The group aimed to publish limited edition portfolio’s twice a year; the first in 1964 as offset photocopies and later silver gelatin prints, these were distributed the museums and libraries; exhibitions were mounted in rented spaces in Harlem during the same period. The collective still exists although aims and membership have altered over the decades. More use of photography in publication can be found in a room dedicated to the Black Panther movement with magazines posters and other ephemera that very much captures the mood of the period.
Another publication set especially to promote African American photography was The Black Photographers Annual produced in four volumes from 1973 until 1980. Edition 1 showed the work of some 49 photographers. Instigator Kamoinge member Beuford Smith along with editor and publisher Joe Crawford set no agenda other than to showcase different approaches to portraying Black American life than that presented in main stream magazines such as Life. Stylistically the prints are very dark and atmospheric especially the work of Dawoud Bey, William J. Cottman, Ming Smith and Anthony Barboza. All were prominent workers in the Black community, however despite the imagery being high quality and as insightful as their white contemporaries their names are little known in the wider world of photography. They and their co contributors to the Annual are well worth following up.
Over the exhibtion the self-doubt of Black artists surfaces time and time again probably promoted by having to constantly be looking over shoulders; while there is no dout in the validity and creativity of their work this undertow seemed to marginalise viewpoints. Beuford Smith seems to have recognised this in a reflection from 1972 “ I think where the Black artist should go is to show the other side for a change. We never see a guy’s old lady or his mother or grandmother just walking down the street on a Sunday afternoon. We never see these kinds of photographs. We always see the ‘woe is me’ sort of thing and I think we should go into a direction that shows the other side of Black people.” That said as the exhibition enters its final stretch into the 1980s a new language begins to rise driven by set up images that critically digest and represent Black life with the work of Carrie Mae Weems, Renne Cox and Lorna Simpson. A though provoking exhibition that leaves much in the mind to consider about how far we have and have not travelled. A must see.