Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power
12 July – 22 October 2017
This exhibition explores how the Civil Rights Movement has influenced the work of black artists from across the USA.
This exhibition examines what it meant to be an artist during the Civil Rights Movement, focusing on how art was used as a platform for protest and a space for freedom of expression. Featuring works spanning from 1963 to 1983, the show begins in the same year as Martin Luther King’s famed speech ‘I Have A Dream’, when the New York-based Spiral Group was founded. The collective included artists such as collagist Romare Bearden and abstractionist Norman Beard, who both depicted the contemporary Black experience across the US – from the urban world of Jazz clubs and soaring tower blocks, to the sweltering heat of the rural South.
Artists would often pay tribute to key socio-political figures in their work. Wadsworth Harrell depicted activist Angela Davis as a symbol of revolutionary activity, with her likeness composed of extracts from her powerful speeches picked out in psychedelic colours. Jack Whitten’s Homage to Malcolm X meanwhile, is a highlight of the show, as it has never been publicly exhibited before. The artist went on to be awarded the National Medal of Arts by Barack Obama in 2015.
The show also draws attention to the many artists refused to engage with the established art scene, and instead chose to work with black-owned galleries and public programmes. For example, the ‘Wall of Respect’ in Chicago and the ‘Smokehouse’ wall paintings in Harlem, or work created for newspapers that supported the struggle.
Works by Betye Saar and Kay Brown document the emergence of black feminism, showing how these artists grappled with the intersection of racial and female oppression. Both used mixed media, collage and assemblage to breakdown and subvert stereotypes around domesticity, black heritage and womanhood.