A survey of over 150 artworks created by more than 60 artists, Soul of a Nation provides crucial context to one of the most revolutionary art movements in both the Brooklyn Museum’s history and America’s. The exhibition, divided by geographical regions and the artistic styles of work by African American artists, spans from 1963 to the early 1980s.
Spread across two floors, Soul of a Nation showcases a broad stylistic range, from figurative to abstract painting, in addition to the formats of assemblage, photography, sculpture, and performance. As a result, the extensive display highlights the artists’ aesthetics across geographic regions and political events. Of notable importance is the Brooklyn Museum’s exploration of its own institutional history in Soul of a Nation.
The Brooklyn Museum and Soul of a Nation
On Monday, April 28, 1969, the Committee to Abolish Discrimination in the Arts sent out a memo of demands, the fourth being, “appointment of a Black Director of the Brooklyn Museum, as of September, 1969.” This request did not occur, however, the Brooklyn Museum did appoint Henri Ghent, an activist and curator, to create and mount the Brooklyn Museum Community Gallery in 1968. This gallery came to fruition as a result of demands made by local Black artists frustrated by the museum’s lack of representation. This project was not without contention, as the Fice group proclaimed in a statement in regards to the new gallery, “We, Fice, as a group of four bonafide Afro-American cultural institutions, have been brought by city and state arts bureaucracies, into an establishment museum: given a month in which to show in a patronizingly called, ‘community gallery,’ and left there without funds to permit us the simple opportunity to exhibit our culture with the same financial support with which the culture of other Americans is exhibited in the museums throughout the country.”
Ghent, the director of the Community Gallery, organized 55 exhibitions within the five years he worked with the Brooklyn Museum. In 1971, Ghent was fired and removed from the Brooklyn Museum, an event that unleashed criticism from the community. In a memo to the then director of the Brooklyn Museum, Ghent stated, “because of your sentiment that ‘none of the blacks on the museum staff have worked out,’ I fear that I would be jeopardizing the good impression you’re striving to make with the AAM delegates by complying with your request to organize and install a special exhibition in the Community Gallery…”
In Soul of a Nation, the Brooklyn Museum recognizes its history and presents a remarkable show, offering a diversity in aesthetics alongside advancements in art historical scholarship.
Highlights from Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power
Benny Andrews, Did the Bear Sit Under a Tree?, 1969, mahogany wood.
Created as product of Andrews’ reflections on the Civil Rights protests of the 1960s, Andrews once stated “it is a Black person who is shaking his fist at the very thing that is supposed to be protecting him [the flag] and that he’s operating under." The flag is composed of a roll of fabric, while the figure’s mouth is fashioned from a zipper. The monumental canvas is a collage of accessible materials, which Andrew claims, “I started working in collage because I found oil paint so sophisticated and I didn’t want to lose my sense of rawness. Where I am from, the people are very austere…We wear rough fabrics. We actually used the burlap bagging sacks that seed came in to make our shirts. These are my textures.”
Wadsworth A. Jarrell, Revolutionary (Angela Davis), 1971, acrylic and mixed media on canvas.
Jarrell painted the enchanting Revolutionary in reference to a photograph of activist and professor Angela Davis at a rally in the 1970s. The photograph was published in Life magazine under the article title “The Making of a Fugitive,” as Davis had a warrant out for arrest for a crime she did not commit. The words that surround Davis are fragments from her past speeches. In Revolutionary, Jarrell dresses Davis with a bandolier, a belt that soldiers use to hold ammunition. However, the bandolier is not a reference to an ammunition holder, but rather to Jae Jarrell’s artwork, Revolutionary Suit, 1969, that features not bullets but a bandolier filled with art making tools, such as pastels.
Both artworks were created as a part of the Organization of Black American Culture, a group of artists from Chicago who supported the Black liberation struggle. After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., a number of artists, including both Wadsworth and Jae, later joined AfriCobra (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists) a submovement that sought to create uplifting artworks in a kaleidoscopic-like style.
Faith Ringgold, United States of Attica, 1972, lithograph on paper.
In United States of Attica, Ringgold documents the 1971 uprising at the Attica Prison, a demonstration over inmate rights, which left forty-three inmates dead. Ringgold maps other events of violence and demonstrates that the violence at Attica is not isolated and should be viewed in a larger context. The caption beneath: “This map of American violence is incomplete / Please write in whatever you find lacking.” As the piece is a lithograph, it was distributed as a print and circulated as a poster. This artwork is categorized under “New York: Revolutionary Images and Art World Activism” in Soul of a Nation. This particular gallery focuses on visual activism and is centered on the formation of the Black Power period, which influenced new symbolism and imagery as political resistance.
Barkley L. Hendricks, Blood (Donald Formey), 1975, oil and acrylic on canvas.
A prolific artist, Barkley was well known for his life-size portraits. He painted the figures against brightly toned backgrounds, a technique that focuses the viewer’s attention to the subject. At times, Hendricks references art historical examples of portraiture, while centering his oeuvre on the representation of Black Americans. He worked in a figurative mode, despite the popularity of abstraction in the late 1960s; this way, Black Americans can see themselves in institutions like museums.
Frank Bowling, Texas Louise, 1971, acrylic on canvas.
A member of the abstraction movement in the late 1960s and the early 1970s, Bowling was influenced by the Color Field painting of the 1940s and 1950s. In Texas Louise, Bowling poured acrylic paint over stencils of continents and regions, which were then removed before an addition of another layer of acrylic paint. With his continent series, geographies melt into the background, emblematic of the fluidity of people’s migration. The artist is conveying the wave-like properties of borders: a unified world. Bowling was born in Bartica, Guyana, then moved to England before eventually settling down in New York.
Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, The Brooklyn Museum, will be on view from 14 September 2018 - 3 February 2019