Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power

5 out of 5 stars
4 out of 5 stars
(3user reviews)
Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power

Time Out says

5 out of 5 stars

This exhibition flips the idea of 'black art' on its head, tracing an under looked 20-year period of creative innovation among African-American artists.

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.


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Civil rights, art, aesthetics identity, political and cultural change (or revolution) are all in the centre of this exhibition of American Black Artists’ work from 1963-1983.

Even before we enter the exhibition rooms we are introduced to the climate of the time with fragments of important speeches (Luther King Jr., Malcom X, Baldwin…) It’s quite impossible not to get a little emotional after watching those and then seeing Romare Bearde’s collages – right at the first room. The whole show is an intense class on the (impossible) construct of identity with all the unity and disagreements that that entails.


This is a really interesting exhibition if somewhat chaotic. As the link in the curation is Black Artists every room is very different and even within each room the works can vary greatly in style.

There are some very moving pieces and as ever its free to Tate Members so its definitely worth a look.


Educational, empowering and enriching this exhibition is colorful and depicts the Civil Rights movement in a really moving way. If you're a member it is free and if not its £16, but £16 very well spent. Each room has work from different African American artists showcasing things from the civil rights movement of the 1960s including paintings of Malcolm X, recreated scenes of police violence and images of the Ku Klux Klan. 

I found it really moving and informative as the exhibition clearly unites black artists and art together and acknowledges the terrible events that happened in a way that is accessible to all. Definitely an exhibition worth seeing before it closes and by far my favorite experience of the Tate Modern.