I got out to do something not directly work-related just twice during my two weeks in London last month; the most memorable was checking out “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” at the Tate Modern.
The reasons are plentiful but beyond all was simply the timing. I attended on August 10, one day before a torch lit neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville commandeered the world’s headlines to expose just how alive and well the concept of white supremacy is in certain pockets of the U.S. And two days before a demonstration in that Virginia city turned bloody after a white nationalist plowed his car into a group of counter protesters killing one and injuring at least 19 others.
A national debate ensued, including one which, remarkably enough, left people wondering why the President of the United States, who usually finds it impossible to shut up, was so slow to directly denounce the white supremacists, their rally, and their core beliefs, without first forcing a moral equivalence between the white power camp and those who came to demonstrate against those self-professed Nazis. Many in the pro-Nazi crowd were wearing Donald Trump ‘Make America Great Again’ aka MAGA caps, which is probably one reason for his uncharacteristic if temporary self-deliberation — and how he became the first US president to flunk Matt Taibbi’s Don’t hug Nazis rule from “Presidenting for Dummies”.
The events of the days that followed that two-hour visit to the Tate Modern showed that the exhibit was more than a mere look back. Not just a retrospective of the art that helped guide, propel and explain an important, pivotal and turbulent time. The exhibit and the work it celebrated was not only relevant — it was timely and alive. It was now. Framed in the context of the week’s events some 4000 miles away, it shows just how much the struggle depicted still very much continues; at the moment even against a reaction that’s epitomized by the man currently occupying the White House. It’s stayed with me since.
The exhibit covers a two-decade period of African-American art beginning in 1963, when different notions of “Black Power” were beginning to take root. In that context, from Martin Luther King Jr’s non-violent struggle to the rise of the Black Panther Party, it’s hard not to see “Soul of a Nation” primarily in political terms. But it also works astoundingly well in the aesthetic realm too, as it attempts to follow the on-going debate about what “black art” is, or should be. No two answers were the same.
Below are a few more of the 17 images I snapped from the exhibit along with half a dozen videos, mostly of single pieces, an attempt to share some of the life they’re living.
At the Tate Modern through 22 October. If you’re passing through London between now and then, invest a few hours.
One a certain level, “Injustice Case” by David Hammons was the most powerful piece for me, presented as an x-ray look at the US justice system. Framed by the national flag, it’s a depiction of Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale, who was bound and gagged during his trial as one of the Chicago 8, a group of activists tried for conspiracy by the federal government following violent protests at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. I listened as a father, seemingly well versed in the Chicago 8 (then Chicago 7) cases, explained the trial to his teenage son. “That happened in the states?”
Above and at top, a self-portrait with the artist wearing a Superman t-shirt. The subtitle refers to words spoken by Black Panthers co-founder Bobby Seale at his federal trial.
From the description:
Andrews saw himself as a collagist and associated his approach to materials with his childhood growing up in rural Georgia. “I started working in collage because I found oil paint so sophisticated and I didn’t want to lose my sense of rawness. Where I am from, the people are very austere… we wear rough fabrics. We actually used the burlap bagging sacks that seed came in to make our shirts. These are my textures.”
The flag here is a sheet of rolled-up fabric, while the figure’s mouth is made of a zipper. He later said of this work: “It is a black person who is shaking his fist at the very thing that is supposed to be protecting him and that he’s operating under.”