William T. Williams began making “hard-edge” abstract paintings at Yale, where he studied with artist Al Held. This painting was named after jazz saxophonist John Coltrane and may conjure the cascades of sound in his performances.
Trane was made in New York in the same year that Williams—as a member of the Smokehouse Associates—created a number of abstract wall paintings in Harlem. That year he also set up the artist-in-residence program at the Studio Museum in Harlem.
Here, Faith Ringgold documented the 1971 uprising at Attica Prison, over demands for inmate rights, that left forty-three dead. The image presents the Attica Prison riot not as an isolated event but as an American tragedy to be understood within an ongoing, nationwide context. The caption reads: “This map of American violence is incomplete / Please write in whatever you find lacking.”
At the height of its popularity, this print was circulated as two thousand small-format posters. Ringgold first studied printmaking at the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School founded by Amiri Baraka.
Perhaps Betye Saar’s best-known work, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima juxtaposes radical Black Nationalist imagery of weapons, a raised fist, and African kente cloth with Aunt Jemima, the Southern “mammy” recognized as the face of the best-selling pancake mix and a stereotype of smiling, docile servitude. Saar was appalled by racist depictions she found on everyday objects at flea markets and in curio shops. Inspired in part by Joseph Cornell’s Surrealist assemblages, here she incorporated a kitchen notepad holder in the form of a Black female figure. Moved by the strength and determination of Black women, Saar sought to recast a painfully enduring image of Black female subservience as a symbol of empowerment.
Mars Dust was one of a series of paintings that Alma Thomas included in a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1972. At age eighty, she became the first African American woman to have a solo show there. Fascinated by the technological advances of the space age, she looked at daily reports of NASA’s Mariner 9 mission to photograph Mars. Huge dust storms on the planet, which initially prevented the relay of images back to Earth, inspired her to make this work.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Frank Bowling’s work drew from Color Field painting of the 1940s and 1950s, yet maintained representational images. He poured waves of acrylic over stencils of continents, which were removed before more paint was applied, leaving ghostly outlines. Continents emerge from and disappear into color; oceans and rivers are combined with pools and trails of liquid paint. While many Black Americans were pointing to Africa as a mother continent, Bowling’s maps celebrate a more fluid and open idea of identity and belonging in the world, enacting what scholar Kobena Mercer calls a “decolonial space of decentering.” Texas Louise and Dan Johnson’s Surprise were included in Bowling’s solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in late 1971.
Born in Bartica, Guyana, Bowling moved to England in his teens. In 1966 he relocated to New York, where he joined a group of abstract artists and included many of them (such as William T. Willliams and Daniel LeRue Johnson) in his 1969 exhibition 5+1 at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. This exhibition, and Bowling’s extensive writings, argued for an expansive notion of Black art encompassing both abstract and figurative.
Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power
September 14, 2018–February 3, 2019
Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power shines light on a broad spectrum of Black artistic practice from 1963 to 1983, one of the most politically, socially, and aesthetically revolutionary periods in American history. Black artists across the country worked in communities, in collectives, and individually to create a range of art responsive to the moment—including figurative and abstract painting, prints, and photography; assemblage and sculpture; and performance.
Many of the over 150 artworks in the exhibition directly address the unjust social conditions facing Black Americans, such as Faith Ringgold’s painting featuring a “bleeding” flag and Emory Douglas’s graphic images of beleaguered Black city life. Additional works present oblique references to racial violence, such as Jack Whitten’s abstract tribute to Malcolm X, made in response to the activist's assassination, or Melvin Edwards’s contorted metal sculptures. Working as a collective, members of the AfriCOBRA group presented images of uplift and empowerment. Barkley Hendricks, Emma Amos, and others painted everyday portraits of Black people with reverence and wit. All the artists embraced a spirit of aesthetic innovation, but some took this as their primary goal, often through experiments with color and paint application.
This exhibition brings together for the first time the excitingly disparate practices of more than sixty Black artists from this important moment, offering an unparalleled opportunity to see their extraordinary works side by side.
Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power is organized by Tate Modern in collaboration with the Brooklyn Museum and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, and The Broad, Los Angeles, and curated by Mark Godfrey, Senior Curator, International Art, and Zoe Whitley, Curator, International Art, Tate Modern. The Brooklyn Museum presentation is curated by Ashley James, Assistant Curator, Contemporary Art, Brooklyn Museum.
Leadership support for this exhibition is provided by the Ford Foundation, the Terra Foundation for American Art, Universal Music Group, and the Henry Luce Foundation. Additional support is provided by the Brooklyn Museum's Contemporary Art Committee, the Arnold Lehman Exhibition Fund, Christie’s, Raymond Learsy, Saundra Williams-Cornwell and W. Don Cornwell, Crystal McCrary and Raymond J. McGuire, Megan and Hunter Gray, the Hayden Family Foundation, Carol Sutton Lewis and William Lewis, Valerie Gerrard Browne, Hales Gallery, Tracey and Phillip Riese, Connie Rogers Tilton, and Jack Shainman Gallery.