Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power
This is an article about seeing black people looking at black art in a white cube.
I go to the Tate a fair amount, along with other big art galleries in London. I often go on weekdays (flexible working hours). What I notice about the non-tourist-filled days is that the majority of patrons are older white people. In twos, on a day out, enjoying the newest exhibition.
It is this demographic that has vexed me since I started going. Yes, older white people should enjoy art, but so should everyone else. I refuse to believe that this slice of society are the only ones who can visit a free art gallery, or buy the ticket for the special exhibitions. The perpetuated exclusivity and cultural elitism of museums is obvious and endlessly frustrating. The range of special exhibitions in recent years has felt very ‘safe’ – pop art, Turner etc., and very white middle class. Things you learn when you take art for A level at exclusive schools.
But a few days ago I visited Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, Tate’s retrospective of black art made around the civil rights movement, showcasing how various groups of artists all over the US sought in that time to represent and express the black experience. A lot of the work is figurative, black faces from a time of turmoil stare back at you, telling you about what it was like to march with Martin Luther King Jr., to be part of the Black Panther movement, to hear about Malcolm X’s assassination, to be oppressed and to fight for the right to live in safety, out of poverty. What it was like to keep your eye on the prize.
And on a Thursday afternoon, the people attending were 50% POC. Black people, mixed people, mixed couples, older black people educating their white friends, young artistic couples with dreds holding hands and murmering to one another. Taking it all in and standing in equality with other people in this great big exclusive gallery and seeing art that reflects them, their parents’ and grandparents’ history.
This is not to say this never happens. I remember Tate’s Chris Ofili exhibition. But right now, when US and British life is once again in turmoil, when racism is on the rise, when police brutality is aired on Facebook and never convicted, a summer exhibition at the UK’s biggest modern art gallery on the experience and strength of black artists when faced with the same and far worse is a brilliant move. I applaud Tate for doing something right (alongside Queer British Art at Tate Britain as the same time).
I stood with a young couple, one black, one mixed, before Jack Whitten’s Homage to Malcolm, a monolithic triangular black sculpture textured with grooves made by an afro comb. We acknowledged each other and stood in silence looking at this powerful piece. We moved on, moved, emotional, and smiled at each other. I wanted to know their story, to ask them what it felt like to see these things with other POC in London. If they felt like I felt, moved by who was on the walls and who was watching them. If their black mother also sat them down at a young age and told them about the oppression at that time and who held a little party when Obama was elected and cried her eyes out with happiness at his inauguration.
It’s a stunning exhibition, enraging, shocking, gracious and beautiful. It reflects the myriad of ways artists can express the sadness, rage and fear that comes with upheaval and struggles and strife, but also the hope, power and strength that comes too. It’s an education, one I’m glad white people are getting by visiting it. But most of all I’ve overjoyed and slightly tearful that black people are flooding it, finding art by them and for them, about our history. Seeing how people stood up to oppression before, despite the danger, and made waves, changes to society that affect us all now. It’s rare, so rare, and one can only hope will become less so in the future.