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Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power offers an expansive view of the depth and breadth of American art in the heady, dizzying years of black activism between 1963 and 1983. While the book accompanies the exhibition of the same name, it is less of an exhibition catalogue and more of a compendium of micro histories, essays, reflections, images, and memories of one of the most dynamic periods in the history of American art. A period when the politics of blackness drove a new generation of artists and spawned a flourish of creative advances, artistic alliances, institutional change, and community activity. Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power is divided into an introduction and three parts, which include illustrated short histories, full-length essays, and recollections from some of the most important players in the “Age of Black Power.” A welcome addition to the literature on the art of African Americans, Soul of a Nation is perhaps the most fully realized publication dealing with the visual arts culture of black power to date.
Part 1, “Spiral to FESTAC,” is a compilation of short treatments and images of important touch points, contexts, individual artists, collectives, institutions, and moments that were the engines and arteries of the Black Arts Movement. Short histories of groups such as Roy DeCarava’s Kamoinge Workshop, the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC), the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (AfriCOBRA), and “Where We At” Black Women Artists Inc. are described in one to two pages with relevant images following. As we look back at this history from the twenty-first century, an era characterized by the artist as individual, the number of artists’ groups and collectives that fueled the movement’s momentum is striking. They came together to assert the identity of the black artist into the American art world and pondered, debated, and attempted to define the controversial notion of a black aesthetic, a notion that in the end remained elusive.
These historical vignettes move through the era, lighting on meaningful clusters of activity and offering fascinating details about gallery histories and exhibition activity of the period. We learn how exhibition spaces devoted to black artists burgeoned across the country, providing opportunities for critical visibility and exchange that were simply not available to them in mainstream institutions. The authors describe controversial attempts to bridge institutional and racial barriers and the fallout. The authors explain the disenchantment with and responses to the Whitney Museum of American Art’s 1971 exhibition Contemporary Black Artists in America that brought into relief the issue of white curatorial authority to speak on behalf of black artists. Among the twenty-one topics in this section are black women artists, black photographers, filmmakers, Los Angeles artists, and the art of the Black Panther Party.
Two broad-reaching curatorial essays provide the longest sustained treatments in the book. In “Notes on Black Abstraction,” Mark Godfrey takes on the complexities of the racial implications (or lack thereof) of abstraction and its politically charged nature during the period. Godfrey describes the conflicts that arose from the assertion by Black Arts Movement activists that it was the responsibility of the black artist to take up the mantle of pressing social issues. Further, Godfrey points out that some accused those who chose abstraction of “prostrating themselves before white institutions and producing work according to established white aesthetic ideals” (148). Godfrey describes the case of Al Loving who tried to develop a form of black abstraction that would satisfy his aesthetic interests and address some of the political and cultural issues he cared deeply about. Loving’s remedy, according to Godfrey, was to create a form of black abstraction that had to do with improvisation, materiality, and color.
“Notes on Black Abstraction” is then devoted to black artists who, like Loving, forged their own brand of “black abstraction.” Godfrey casts a wide net to define abstraction in general, from painting to figurative photography to assemblage. He then suggests specific qualities embodied in or inferred by the works that designate that abstraction as “black.” For Norman Lewis, black abstraction equaled the resistance to racism that is suggested in the KKK-like figures in his 1960 painting America the Beautiful. Godfrey writes elegantly about DeCarava’s magisterial photographic manipulations of form and light that suggest abstract imagery. Godfrey then makes arguments for black abstraction in work by artists such as William T. Williams and Sam Gilliam, who have assertively resisted circumscribing their work in what Darby English would call “black representational space.” While Godfrey generally avoids what he calls “problematic projections” onto the work, he makes what feels to me like a leap when he claims that in Williams’s Nu Nile of 1973 “the diamond-like compositions implied resistance to all kinds of confinement (the disenfranchisement experience by Black Americans, but equally the confinement of a young Black abstract painter unfairly expected to represent an ‘urban ghetto environment’)” (169). On more solid ground, Godfrey asserts that elements of black abstraction are cultivated in titles such as Williams’s Trane of 1969 that references the artistry of jazz great John Coltrane, or Gilliam’s Three Panels for Mr. Robeson of 1975. Here and throughout the essay, Godfrey points out the nuances, subtleties, and ambivalences inherent in the work of artists such as Frank Bowling, Noah Purifoy, and Betye Saar who, during the time period covered by Soul of a Nation, flirt with abstraction, black identity, and African ancestry. Godfrey’s discussion extends the conceptual possibilities of black abstraction to David Hammons who deftly used his own body, greasy bags, and “Black hair” to synthesize intimate human traces and everyday detritus. In the end, Godfrey does not absolutely define black abstraction, but his section “Notes” offers valuable insights into the myriad ways black abstract artists did indeed engage and reflect the powerful forces of the Black Arts Movement, outside of the limitations of figuration.
Zoe Whitley’s essay “American Skin: Artists on Black Figuration” similarly considers how black artists approached issues of the body as well as the embodiment of issues. Divided into three parts, Skin, Blood & Bone, and Body & Soul, Whitley creates evocative conceptual frameworks. In Skin, Whitley features Barkley L. Hendricks, whose works are perhaps the most striking examples of black figuration of the era. His signifying bodies seem to ooze the cultural and political ethos of the time. Hendricks’s everyday models embody iconic black cultural markers such as Black Panther activist Bobby Seale or the Marvin Gaye lyric “What’s Going On.” Yet Whitley points out that Hendricks, whose figures she states have a way of “occupying the world bodily, through swagger and other forms of non-verbal communication” (199), resists the notion that he channeled the charged issues of race and identity. Hendricks was concerned with being “a good painter.” This kind of ambivalence runs through the work of several of the artists featured in this exhibition and suggests the complexities of ascribing intent and the fragility of the notion of codified Black Arts Movement principles.
In the section Blood & Bone, Whitley features artists whose works suggest the violence and aggression of the era. Faith Ringgold’s American People Series #20: Die, 1967, Elizabeth Catlett’s Black Unity, 1968, and Dana C. Chandler Jr.’s Fred Hampton’s Door 2, 1975, could not be more different in terms of medium and style, but they all critique institutionalized violence against blacks in the United States. Particularly poignant is Whitley’s description of the lack of overt figuration in Chandler’s work, which he says “may not depict skin, but the blistered door reads as the broken body and ended life of the young man behind it, and for many members of his own community would be understood symbolically as a mechanism through which state-sanctioned violence can be misrepresented as self-defense” (211).
In the final section, Body & Soul, Whitley focuses on three women whose fiber and performance art cross pollinate with feminist movement aesthetics. Jae Jarrell’s Revolutionary Suit and Senga Nengudi’s nylon stocking sculptures employ the everyday, the feminine, and the sartorial as vessels for, and symbols of, black empowerment. Both works are meditations on the black female body—as adornment or conceptual “reflections of used bodies” (216). Lorraine O’Grady is the final artist in the essay and her work closes out the parameters of the exhibition. Her subjective performances critiqued the black bourgeois experience, the exclusionary practices of mainstream museums, and the hegemony of the mainstream art world. Whitley concludes that while it was radical to make black life the central the subject matter, it is equally culturally relevant to resist imposed or prescribed mandates for black expression.
Recollections is the must-read final section of Soul of a Nation. It brings the discussion to a close with the first-person narratives by major influencers Samella Lewis, Edmund Barry Gaither, David C. Driskell, Jae and Wadsworth Jarrell, and Linda Goode Bryant. Their fascinating stories reveal the inner workings, political struggles, aspirations, and achievements that drove the movement. While the entry point into the book is through lens of the black experience, the authors quickly illuminate the complexities, contingencies, and vagaries of art and identity being negotiated in real time during the period addressed in Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power. The publication hits its mark and provides a substantive, well illustrated, and nuanced reading of this critical moment in the history of American visual culture.
Adrienne L. Childs
Associate, Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, Harvard University