“Superman never saved any black people” – Bobby Seal.
Soul of a Nation, a new exhibition which opened its doors to the Tate Modern in London on the 12th of July, embraces and empowers black artists during the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Separated in 11 rooms, each showcases different artists, art collectives and movements which shaped black culture and the black experience during that time. From ‘Art on the Streets’ to AfriCobra in the Chicago, the exhibition is an inspiring yet difficult one to experience due to the extreme forms social, political and artistic oppression faced by black people during racial segregation in the 60s. With speeches and stories from civil rights leaders such as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr, James Baldwin and Stokely Carmichael (just to name a few), the accounts of racism and personal struggle are translated in beautiful, harrowing and provoking pieces of artwork from the likes of Barkley L. Hendricks, Benny Andrews and Archibald Motley.
Alongside the art, the exhibition also provides a playlist of pro-black and empowering songs from music legends such as John Coltrane, James Brown, Donny Hathaway, Archie Shepp, Sly Johnson, Sun Ra and Gil Scott-Heron amongst others. Listening to the soundtrack of this exhibition whilst digesting the dark yet colourful artistic expressions of the artists dives you head first into the lives of African Americans in the 1960s and 1970s. It was a truly immersive experience, and one which provokes intellectually as well as emotionally.
One of my favourite pieces was Archibald Motley’s masterful painting ‘The First One Hundred Years: He Amongst You Who is Without Sin Shall Cast the First Stone; Forgive Them Father For They Know Not What They Do, c. 1963–72 Oil on canvas’. Its depth studying the white and black experience with contrasting colours and racist imagery tackles themes of conflicting ‘American’ identity between races and is a powerful statement of racism 50 years ago.
What is frightening is that some of the issues faced by African Americans back in the 60s and 70s are still a problem today. Despite there being tremendous progress in regards to race relations and human rights in the last 50 years, things now are by no means perfect. I’m not going to go into a socio-political discussion right now, but all I will say is that we should as music and art lovers, give a platform to those more marginalised than us to voice their feelings and emotions through art or literature.
Make sure you go and see the ‘Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power’ exhibition at the Tate Modern in London, open to the public until the 22nd October 2017 with special events you can check out on their main page. £16.50 including gift aid donation.
The playlist for the exhibition can be streamed below on Spotify.
You can also purchase a soundtrack curated by both the Tate Modern and Soul Jazz Records below.