By Kornelia Jaroc (BA History of Art and Anthropology)
According to the curators, the exhibition Soul of the Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power was to celebrate the works of Black American artists in the politically and socially eventful two decades following 1963. The question is, is it enough?
The exhibition offers layers of socio-historical nuanced narrative which help to understand various artistic responses in the turbulent times of Civil Rights Movement. Over 150 works by more than 60 Black American artists are organised not regionally or chronologically, but according to different aesthetic strategies, different stances in the debate about what it meant to be a black artist at the time, which resulted in different approaches to artistic production and presentation. The works span from political figuration to collage, abstraction to assemblage to ‘Black aesthetic photography’, and were exhibited in the mainstream art institutions, newly funded museums and on the streets. This curatorial approach has been widely deemed fresh and successful for showcasing the diversity of nonconformist, radical, politically-engaged art in the first two decades of Civil Rights Movement.
For what it intended to do, it was a successful exhibition, but I dare to question those intentions. UK’s most prestigious public art galleries are taking turns in presenting major survey exhibitions of Black art, and all of them show some kind of fixation on the past narratives. Don’t get me wrong, I think that historical insertion of so-far-excluded black art to the not-so-universal story of art is absolutely vital. But I also feel that recycling the familiar format and line-up to retell the story over and over again just won’t do, and it is not only in collective and on history that black artists can speak. In these sort of surveys, rich arrays of individual creative practices of artists like Joe Overstreet or Sam Gilliam are by necessity represented by one or two works, which can barely represent their oeuvres. ‘Celebrating black art’ slogans also ring kind of hollow when the contemporary artists and their aesthetic strategies of reflecting on troubled today never get the attention. Tate Modern is well-known for their in-depth retrospective exhibitions of individual modern and contemporary artists. Since it opened in 2000, it has yet to present a major exhibition by African-American artist, and in the meanwhile, it was stars like Georgia O’Keeffe, Robert Rauschenberg, Bruce Newman, Eva Hesse, or Wolfgang Tillmans who were taking the floor instead.
While we enjoy much-needed historical explorations and acts of broadening the suffocatingly narrow canon, we must demand those are not used as excuses for not dealing with black artists in the present.