Arts + Culture
Lorraine O'Grady (b. 1934). "Art Is (Girlfriends Times Two)," 1983/2009. Courtesy of the artist and Alexander Gray Associates, New York.

This Striking Exhibition Shows How Black Artists Contributed to the Black Power Movement

A review of Tate Modern's 'Soul of a Nation'—an exhibition that is giving African American artists their long overdue recognition.

Martin Puryear's Self will forever be a wonder. It is sculpted from wood with a rich black luster and is said to be hollow inside. The temptation to touch and feel it was to resist. At a glance its shape is that of a thumb. Move one step to the left or right and its precise shape changes. Move another step and it changes again.

The amorphous nature of Puryear's creation gives it fluidity in character and meaning. Is the "self" of the title referring to one's inner state as whole in form and colour but also constantly changing? Or is it a vision of "blackness" as a reality shared by multitudes no two of whom are the same in the same way no two viewpoints of the sculpture are the same? Or not.

The ambiguity adds to the fascination and to what in total is a most exhilarating exhibition of works by African Americans by Tate Modern called Soul of a Nation.


This is the first time a major survey of works by African American artists are shown in the UK and only covers 20 years from 1963, the year of the great March on Washington led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Curators Zoe Whitely and Mark Godfrey subdivided a mass of 150 works from as many as 60 to occupy 12 rooms at the gallery. They also set an austere tone for the exhibition, as if to prepare the visitor's mind, placing five screens at the entrance with each one playing, on a loop, speeches any luminaries including King, Malcolm X and James Baldwin.

The eloquence and gravity each speaker brings to topics on black life and struggles is able to prime the mind and awaken emotions for an experience that excites as well as it depresses and could dampen the spirit as well as it reaffirms life, if not the necessity of art.

The first room is dedicated to Spiral, a collective formed in 1963 in New York by a group of artists who tasked themselves with figuring out their place and by extension that of the "black artist" in American society.

Romare Bearden (1911-1988). "Pittsburg Memory," 1964. Collection of Halley Harrisburg and Michael Rosenfield.©Romare Bearden Foundation/DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2017.

The group of 15 artists convened at Romare Bearden's studio between 1963 and 1965 and agreed to present joint exhibitions, but could not agree on common aesthetic grounds, or the more pointed question, "Is there a Negro image?" posed by member Norman Lewis.

Spiral's final decision to make works solely in a monochrome palette proves to be fruitful as it freed the artists from producing overtly political art by committee in favor of personal approaches and convictions.

Reginald Gammon's Freedom Now depicts marchers chanting with placards held up high, while Bearden's collages are made from printed newspaper cutouts one of which, The Conjuring Woman, portray a community healer.

My first time hearing of Bobby Seale, the Black Panther leader, in a substantive way was some years ago on a Black History Studies course led by Robin Walker, author of When We Ruled, a towering and exhaustive history of black peoples before the transatlantic slave trade.

A large part of one class was a listening session for which an excerpt from a recording was played, that of Seale at his trial for inciting violence. The judge had ordered for Seale to be gagged and his body bound to the chair to stop him from protesting a flawed trial and disrupting his own possible conviction.

Occasional recollections of Seale's physical pain and existential anguish have haunted me as if looking for a crystalized form I would find in Hammon's Injustice Case. Set against a white background, Seale's figure looks bleached out, or rather like a developing negative, with intrusions of color supplied from by the red, white and blue stripes of the American flag as if to show American horror in its rawest form informed and sustained by a fully formed consciousness.

Andy Warhol. "Muhammad Ali," 1978. Private collection.©2017 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London.

Assemblage art is well represented not least by Betye Saar, John Outterbridge and Noah Purifoy, who started his practice with the wreckage he gathered from the streets after the Watts Rebellion of 1965, an approach that invests his work with urgency as well as tragedy.

Purifoy's Containment Series includes squares of welded metal whose visible lines of joinery shares a wounded elegance with Kintsugi the Japanese technique repairing breakage and its philosophy showing damage part of a thing's essential make up rather than something to disguise or could give shame.

Abstractions of colours and soggy-looking shapes crop around the figure of Miles Davis in Jeff Donaldson's painting, further intensifying the image of Davis in midflow, eyes closed, cheeks puffed with air and fingers over valves and pistons, while the bell is a deep pool of colors that may well be the source of the abstractions.

Donaldson was a member of the Organisation of Black American Culture (OBAC) formed in 1967 in Chicago, the art collective who created the Wall of Respect as public tributes to "Black Heroes" for which they revamped an abandoned building and divided it into seven sections—Jazz, Theater, Sports, Statesmen, Literature, Rhythm & Blues and Religion.

Roy DeCarava. "Couple Walking," 1979. ©Courtesy Sherry DeCarava and the DeCarava Archives.

The photography section is dominated by the work of Kamoinge, a collective of photographers who in the 1970s published four volumes of The Black Photographers Annual and has become the most significant publication for African American photographers of that era.

Helmed by Joe Crawford, each of the four volumes featured works by, at the time, newcomers like Ming Smith and Elaine Tomlin as well as portfolios by established names which included James VanDerZee, Roy DeCarava and Moneta Sleet whose photograph of Coretta Scott King taken at Dr. King's funeral earned him a Pulitzer in 1969.

Toni Morrison, Gordon Parks and John A. Williams each wrote magisterial introductions to the volumes of Annual as did Baldwin who closed his own essay as if speaking from a pulpit:

"We have been through the fire and we know it and we have been tempered by it, in order to endure a day that is coming, and in order to raise up future generations: even as we were raised up. Nothing lasts forever, not even our suffering, and we have everything to celebrate: ourselves."

Decades of systematic discrimination from white run galleries, much of which is discussed in the exhibition catalogue, have kept many of the artists and their works from important galleries that would have deservedly raised their profiles and value in the marketplace—making Soul Of a Nation a much needed corrective.

Even more, its success could inspire substantial solo exhibitions by the featured artists at Tate and other watchful galleries, giving the artists wider and overdue recognition.

That's the hope.

Take a look at more selections from Soul of a Nation, courtesy of Tate, in the gallery below.

Barkley L. Hendricks. "Icon for My man Superman (Superman Never Saved and Black People—Bobby Seale)," 1969. Collection of Liz and Eric Lefkofsky.

©Barkley L. Hendricks. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

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The Black Women Who Made Big Strides in France in 2018

Yes, this was a bad year for many reasons, but we can still celebrate the black women who rose to prominence

Back in 2015, a group of Black women activists appeared in the French media: les afrofems. They were and still are, fighting against police brutality, for better inclusion in the media and to destroy harmful sexual stereotypes surrounding black women among other worthy goals. Since then, more influential Black women have gained a bigger representation in the media. And, even better, some of the afrofems activists, like Laura Nsafou and Amandine Gay, have made films and written books to bring more diversity to the entertainment industry.

2018 has, in many ways, been a year where black women made strides in France, at least in terms of culture. From winning Nobel prizes, to having best selling books and being on top of the charts, Black French women have showed that, no matter how much France wants to keep them under the radar, they're making moves. And, no matter the tragedies and terrible events that have shaped the year, it is something worth celebrating.

France's New Queen of Pop Music

We begin with Aya Nakamura, France's new queen of pop music. Her song Djadja was a summer hit. Everyone from Rihanna, to the French football team who successfully won their second world cup, sang it. Her sophomore album "Nakamura" has been certified gold in France and is still on top of the charts. She is the first French singer to have a number one album in the Netherlands since Edith Piaf in 1961. The last time a black woman was as visible in pop music was in 2004, with Lynsha's single "Hommes...Femmes".

Nakamura has received a huge backlash, mostly due to misogynoir—misogyny directed towards black women where race and gender both play roles. From a French presenter butchering her African first name despite the fact that he can easily pronounce words like "Aliagas", to online trolls calling her ugly and manly when a picture of her wearing no makeup surfaced, to people complaining that she is bringing down the quality of the entire French pop music industry, Nakamura responds to her critics gracefully. Her music is not groundbreaking but her album is full of catchy songs with lyrics using French slang she masters so well that she came up with her own words like "en catchana" (aka doggy style sex). And most importantly, many black girls and women can finally see someone like them in the media getting the success she deserves.

The Nobel Prize Winner

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Another Black French woman has broken records this year: the Guadeloupean writer Maryse Condé who won the Alternative Nobel Prize, a prize meant to replace the Nobel Prize in Literature, after the scandal that the Swedish Academy of Literature faced last year. Condé wrote her first novel at only 11 years old and has been prolific ever since. A former professor of French literature at Columbia University, she has published more than 20 books since the 1970s, exploring the complex relationships within the African diaspora. "Segu", her most famous novel, is about the impact of the slave trade and Abrahamic religion on the Bambara empire in Mali in the 19th century. Condé's work is radical and she remains committed to writing feminist texts exploring the link between gender, race and class, as well as exploring the impact of colonialism. Condé is a pillar of Caribbean literature and it's taken long enough for her work has been acknowledged by the Nobel prize committee.

The Children's Books Writers

From Comme un Million de Papillon Noir

And finally, 2018 has been the year where France's children's literature industry has finally understood how important, for the public, writers and publishers, being inclusive and diverse was. From Laura Nsafou's Comme un Million de Papillon Noir, a best selling book about a young black girl learning to love her natural hair which sold more than 6000 copies, to Neiba Je-sais-tout: Un Portable dans le Cartable, the second book of Madina Guissé published this year after a successful crowdfunding campaign, there are more and more children's and young adult books with non white protagonists. In France, there are still no stats about how diversity is doing, but in America, in 2017, only 7 percent of writers of children's literature were either Black, Latino or Native American.

There's still much to accomplish in France for the Black community to have better representation in the media, politics and all walks of life, but important strides have been accomplished this year, and it make me hopeful for what 2019 and the following years have in store.

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