The work of black artists is too often hidden behind the plaster of whitewashed gallery walls. Things are improving, sure – most London galleries now trip over themselves to share the ‘percentage’ of artists of colour in their collection. But numbers don’t tell the story: big, blockbuster displays of diversity are what’s needed if we are to see any significant movement. Finally, the plates are shifting with ‘Soul of a Nation’, a sonorous and sensitively curated group show dedicated to African American artists, and the work they produced in the turbulent period between 1963 and 1983.
The voice of Martin Luther King greets you at the door, and leads you into the visual aftermath of his assassination. These are the creations of Spiral, a collective of African American artists formed at the pinnacle of the civil rights movement. Among them are the ritualistic collages of Romare Bearden, and haunting monochrome paint strokes of Norman Lewis. On the fringes, 1960s archive copies of the The Black Panther newspapers are preserved, framing the unapologetic political prints of Emory Douglas who said: ‘the ghetto itself is a gallery.’
An awakening comes with Dana C Chandler’s luminous green monument ‘Fred Hampton’s Door 2’, a recreation of the bullet-riddled front door of a young Black Panther revolutionary killed by Chicago police. Equally devastating is Betye Saar’s sculpture ‘Sambo’s Banjo’, a mockery of the racist ‘black entertainer’ caricature where a vintage banjo case houses the skeleton of a lynched man. Want to know why gollywogs are never acceptable items to find in a flea market? Let Betye’s work show you.
But not every step is inherently political. Within its curation, ‘Soul of a Nation’ addresses an almost hypothetical question: ‘what is black art?’, knowing that blackness and its artistic aesthetic cannot be addressed as a monolith. Each room opens with a quote, some with contradictory messages: for the psychedelic painters of the ‘AfriCOBRA’ group, art was about ‘rhythm and shine… and the luster of a just-washed afro’. On the flip side, sardonic portraitist Barkley L Hendricks ‘wasn’t ever interested in speaking for all black folks’.
The show is undeniably erratic, leaving just corridor movements for the rich, sensual documentary photography of Roy DeCarava. But long-overdue effort is given to champion black abstractionists, including the colour field artist Alma Thomas and the stained teardrop canvases of Sam Gilliam.
For too long, they have been absent from the art vocabulary. ‘Soul of a Nation’ is a reminder that these artists were not ‘lost’ to history, we just chose not to look.