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Soul of a Nation at the Tate Modern: Art in the Age of Black Power

Soul of a Nation at the Tate Modern: Art in the Age of Black Power

Muhammed Ali as painted by Andy Warhol in 1978. The picture is coloured red with Ali's features black and his fists green

From Wednesday 12th July until 22nd October the Tate Modern will be presenting a must-see exhibition Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power.

The show will explore what it meant to be a black artist during the Civil Rights Movement and the rise of Black Power, at a time when American cultural identity was being reshaped through social and political unrest, so pertinent today given the unsettled nature of racial identity in the US.

Featuring 150 pieces from 60 different artists during the period of 1963 – 1983, many of which are being shown in the UK for the first time, the underlying themes will centre around the rise of black artists, what it meant to be involved in this reshaping of the cultural landscape, and most notably the purpose of this expression and who was the intended audience.

Emory Douglas, 21 August 1971, ‘We Shall Survive without a doubt’

It was indeed a significant period not least because of the rise of influential and inspiring black figures such as Muhammed Ali, Aretha Franklin, Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and of course Martin Luther King Jnr, who rose to prominence in the mainstream media, and in doing so forged new concepts of racial identity, in turn changing the perception of the collective conscious.

Roy DeCarava ‘A Couple Walking’

Beginning in 1963, it was the formation of the Spiral Group, a New York collective who responded to the current affairs and political agendas of the time with their photomontages and abstract work, be it street art such as murals, or nationally circulated posters and newspapers.

Many black artists were turned away from mainstream galleries and the exhibition takes into consideration the shift to black-owned community galleries that took place at the time. It was in these very communities that powerful political messages could be spread, giving sustenance to the black power movement.

As the Black Panther’s Cultural Minister, Emroy Douglas stated,

“The ghetto itself is the gallery.”

Frank Bowling, ‘Texas Louise’, 1971

With the use of archive footage, the exhibition will also feature the ‘Wall of Respect’ a truly significant artistic event in southside Chicago, a mural that depicted the heroes and heroines of African American history, it is credited today with inspiring thousands of ethnic murals worldwide.

There was also the ‘Smokehouse’ paintings of Harlem, a community-oriented art project aimed at bringing colour to the most deprived corners of Harlem in the late ’60s. Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power will also highlight JAM, the ‘Just Above Midtown’ gallery in New York which was integral in exhibiting avant-garde black artists and encouraged innovation through sculpture and performance.

Benny Andrews, ‘Did the Bear Sit Under the Tree’, 1969

The rise of black power inspired a whole string of political art not just on the streets, but in the form of posters and leaflets that were distributed on the many marches and demonstrations, that typified the period. Each image is not only a compounding statement in itself, but it also reflects a time when people were brave enough to stand up and be heard.

Black artists who emerged right across America will be exhibited, from the AfriCobra group in Chicago, to the art that arose out of the Watts Rebellion in Los Angeles in 1965, and the constructions by Noah Purifoy from the refuge he found on the streets, and of course the emergence of Black Feminism through the work of Betye Saar and Kay Brown, which marked a major revolution for black female empowerment at the time.

Lorraine O’Grady, Art Is (Girlfriends Times Two), 1983

A significant and truly relevant showcasing of a movement and period that has had a continued impact on the social consciousness and cultural life of black communities throughout the US to this day, it’s well worth setting an afternoon aside this summer to explore this inspiring exhibition.

Soul of a Nation – Art in the Age of Black Power runs 12th July – 22nd October 2017 at the Tate Modern. For more info visit

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