‘Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power’ is currently showing at the Tate Modern. It explores the work of African American artists produced during the politically turbulent two decades of 1963-1983. A musical theme shouted throughout the exhibition, so loudly in fact that the Tate has curated a playlist to accompany the art. Jazz and abstract art had always shared a scene, as Jackson Pollock famously created his masterpieces with bebop playing in the background, but increasingly black artists looked to free jazz musicians, inspired by their freedom of form and spontaneous creation through improvisation. William T. William’s ‘Trane’ visualized the music of John Coltrane as vibrant shapes and colours.
In artistic role-reversal, the musicians became the muses for sculptures, painters and photographers. Alongside other figures of black pride like Mohammad Ali and Malcolm X, John Coltrane and Nina Simone feature on the ‘Wall of Respect’, a mural by the Chicago based ‘Organization of Black American Culture’. Exhibiting their art on a building at the corner of 43rd Street and Langley Avenue, in a ghetto area known as the Black Belt, it was a way to both reclaim black culture and rebuild the community. Artists like Emory Douglas saw it as essential for their work to be reproduced and shared, using photocopies and creating posters and newspapers to better spread their message. They wanted to speak directly to the black community, hoping to use culture to create real social and political change. As William Williams said:“We were not just interested in change, but in empowering people to realise they could make change also. In a lot of cases that’s what the walls did, kind of energise the community.”
The sense of community is central to the exhibition, and is reflected by the curators Zoe Whitley and Mark Godfrey’s decision to organize it in terms of ‘scenes’. Much as Detroit produced Motown and New York grew bebop, an artist collective calling themselves the Spiral group came together in early 1960s New York, working only in black and white, while the Chicago collective AfriCOBRA (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists) used distinctive bright colours and inspirational texts in their images. Organising collectively in scenes allowed artists to come together to put on their own exhibitions when they were often marginalized by conventional galleries, but also gave them an opportunity to theorize about their work and what they wanted their art to say about being black in America.
The Spotify playlist accompanying the exhibition features artists such as Gil Scott-Heron, Charles Mingus and Roy Ayres: music that speaks political volumes. Reacting to the turbulent times for Civil Rights, black culture of the period was increasingly being politicized by a group of intellectuals known as the Cultural Nationalists, chief among them Amiri Baraka. They tried to define a ‘Black Aesthetic’ in African America music, art, literature and performance. Echoing Gil Scott-Heron’s famous statement ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’, they believed the revolution would only begin by first changing people’s minds, and that by codifying the Black Aesthetic, African American culture could become the catalyst of the revolution. Free jazz in particular they saw as having the creative power to be the revolution’s soundtrack. Saxophonist
Archie Shepp, featured on the playlist, was a militant Cultural Nationalist, and saw jazz in the late 1960s as “an extension of the entire Civil Rights Movement”.
Listen to Gil Scott-Heron
Listen to Archie Shepp
Reflecting the Black Aesthetic, music of the period returned to what was believed to be the roots of African American culture: the blues, and an often mythologized vision of Africa. For example, call and response was considered a feature of African drumming as well as of blues and early jazz, and can be heard in the chanting of Eddie Gale’s ‘Black Rhythm Happening’. It represented the rejection of European influences, especially the idea of “art for art’s sake”, but instead grounded art in the community by involving the audience in the performance. Rejection of the European aesthetic also saw artists like Alice Coltrane and Sun Ra turn towards a new kind of spirituality and mysticism, inspired by Africa and the East.
Listen to Eddie Gale
Listen to Alice Coltrane
What the exhibition shows is that the struggle for black liberation continued long after what is thought of as the Civil Rights period with Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech had ended. Instead, the struggle evolved. It became more about culture and community, and in this way art became the prime tool for resistance. The legacy of this can clearly be seen today, with ‘Black Lives Matter’ being referenced by mainstream artists like Kendrick Lamar and Beyonce. In the ‘Age of Black Power’, artists and musicians became activists.
Visit the ‘Soul of a Nation’ exhibition at the Tate, open until October 22
Originally published in EZH November 2017