“Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power,” currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum, is a wide-ranging exhibition that examines work by African American artists made from 1963 to 1983. Originally organized by the Tate Modern in London, the show features work by some 60 artists — including Sam Gilliam, Emma Amos, Frank Bowling, Alma Thomas, Barkley Hendricks, Norman Lewis, Emory Douglas, Betye Saar and William T. Williams — and is presented regionally for American audiences, rather than chronologically, as it was shown across the pond. The exhibition opens with paintings created by New York artists just before the Black Power movement took root, and continues with work by various artists and collectives from around the United States that reflects and responds to the struggle for civil rights and the cultural climate during those two tumultuous decades.
In a recent conversation with ALL ARTS, Ashley James, who curated the Brooklyn Museum presentation, discussed the importance of the show, her belief that all art is political and the current state of activist art in the black community.
ALL ARTS: Why do you think this exhibition is important right now, at this particular moment in U.S. history?
ASHLEY JAMES: Well, I think it’s important at any time but I think that’s a tricky question because I think that where that question comes from — and I hear that question a lot — is the sense that there is a kind of parallel discourse happening with our current situation and that of the show.
And I think that what is at the heart of that notion is really this palpable sense of urgency on the part of the art that’s being made. And I feel like people are feeling a similar urgency — it’s a bit of a complex question to answer because on the one hand, I very much think that we are the inheritors of this moment. And so it’s not unnatural to feel like it’s still relevant because that’s how we got where we are now — we’re living in the aftermath of that moment, so of course it’s relevant.
But I think that what the show brings together is artists who are really participating, making work at a moment that is acutely requiring a kind of urgent and new response of them. And I think that is what makes it so spectacular to see now — that moment wasn’t significant only for the Black Power movement but for so many social and aesthetic changes that happened in the late ’60s that makes it such a fertile ground for really experimental and brash and bold art. And I think that that’s what people now want or are feeling this kind of desire for.
AA: Why is political art important?
AJ: Well, I am one of the people who believes that all art is political. I don’t think that politics live separate from art. Whether it’s coming out of a political moment, whether it’s reflecting a political moment, figuratively, which I think is what most people think when they think about political art, like, when there’s a clear message or there are certain people depicted in works of art, or if works of art are used at rallies — that’s obviously what we think of as the most political art. But every work comes out of a specific political, social context. And so no art really escapes politics.
So I think on the one hand, the show shows the real ways in which artists were explicitly engaged in political causes. But at the same time I think it also asserts that art itself is bound up in political structures, in general. Though, you know, in terms of the more explicitly political artists, you have somebody like Emory Douglas who is, in my mind, the most political in the strictest sense of what politics means, as the minister of culture for the Black Panther Party. But even in Douglas’s case, he established what was a very individual and considered kind of aesthetic strategy that goes along with his political message. And in fact he’s kind of credited as one of the people who went to the Black Panther Party and said, you know, aesthetics can’t be separated from the political movement.
Sign up for our newsletter
So, in addition to expanding our idea of what is considered political art, I think the show also points to the ways in which political art is also experimental and innovative, and shouldn’t be seen in distinction from more formalist, quote-unquote non-political work — it’s really about breaking down those distinctions.
AA: What is it specifically about art that works as an effective tool in helping to create political and cultural change?
AJ: I think that varies depending on the beliefs of the given artist and how people feel art works in the world — I think it really varies. Bringing it back to the show, you have artists like AfriCOBRA, who believe that the depiction of black people in these kinds of strong and powerful and affirmative ways leads to political change because they’re empowering the black people that see it. You have somebody like Emory Douglas, who makes work that is also depicting black people in kind of everyday urban scenarios or depictions of revolutionary soldiers themselves. And I think in his case, it’s about kind of building a consciousness that inspires direct political action.
But on the other hand, you have artists who have less of a kind of direct understanding of what their art does. So you’ll have artists who are depicting the Black Power fist and using the iconography of the flag and all of those things in their work, but it’s not with this idea necessarily that that work is somehow going to find its way to the White House. It’s a more diffuse understanding of what a work of art can do. But then there are also artists like some of the assemblage artists from L.A. who are making work that in the very process of making is considered a critique of the political structure or economic structure — so assemblage itself as a kind of political act because you’re recycling, because you’re kind of critiquing the marketplace. So there are a bunch of different ways that you can conceive of art as doing political work.
AA: What’s your take on the state of contemporary political and activist art in the black community?
AJ: That’s hard to say.
I think the idea of making affirmational images is the strategy that has persisted since the 19th century and will continue to persist, in general. I think that that’s one way that we can draw a thread from this period into the present. And of course you still have artists who are engaged in more explicit kind of propagandistic — but I mean propagandistic in the most positive ways — designing work that is to function in a particular political context.
I think, not just black artists, but all artists are the inheritors of this moment in the sense of what the onset of conceptual art meant for artists and this idea that the work of art can be found in ideas rather than the object itself. And I think a lot of artists — not just black artists — are kind of directing these critiques of various kinds of isms — racism, sexism — all of these things through more conceptual gestures.
AA: What do you hope visitors will take away from seeing the exhibition?
AJ: I think innovation is a major key term coming out of this exhibition for me. I hope that visitors recognize the sheer wide scope of artistic production during this period — radically, radically new and inventive. And that black artists were always ever at the forefront of the avant-garde. I think that that’s really important that you see that black artists were just as engaged, just as experimental and just as disparate in their approach as any group can be.
And I also think that, going back to your question about the political, I think a major take-away that I would want visitors to have is what I mentioned before — that the political is informing all art and that the more explicitly political art that we have in our heads also has great aesthetic intention.
Top Image: Wadsworth A. Jarrell's "Revolutionary (Angela Davis)," 1971. © Wadsworth A. Jarrell. (Photo: Brooklyn Museum)