"Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power" opens at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

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"Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power" opens at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Faith Ringgold, The United States of Attica, 1971, offset lithograph in colors on wove paper, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of Anne Wilkes Tucker. © Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Courtesy ACA Galleries, New York.

HOUSTON, TX.- This summer, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is the final venue to present Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, featuring work by more than 60 Black artists created over two revolutionary decades in American history.

The exhibition, organized by Tate Modern in London, was slated to open in Houston in April, but it was delayed because of the pandemic lockdown at the previous venue in San Francisco, the de Young Museum. Soul of a Nation is now on view through August 30, as the final presentation of the three-year tour. The MFAH has implemented social-distancing protocols for all visitors, including required face masks.

“We are enormously privileged to serve as the final venue for this landmark exhibition, which has received tremendous acclaim since its debut in London for its path-breaking exploration of the art of this pivotal era,” said Gary Tinterow, Director, the Margaret Alkek Williams Chair, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. “Two years ago, we urged the Tate in London to send their show to Houston because of its profound illustration of the power of art to inspire social change. We thought it was important to bring that message to America’s most diverse city.”

“I am especially thrilled to be able to highlight the work of Houston artists in the final presentation of this exhibition,” said Kanitra Fletcher, Assistant Curator, Modern and Contemporary Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. “This new section contributes to a more comprehensive representation of Black American art during this era, and celebratesan important legacy of art making here in Texas.”

Accompanying the Houston presentation is a series of online discussions, films, artist conversations, and other programs, most of which were originally planned as on-site events. These include a conversation with the exhibition’s Houston-based artists, moderated by Alvia Wardlaw, Curator and Director of the University Museum at Texas Southern University; a film series featuring the national releases of two documentaries: John Lewis: Good Trouble, a biography of the Civil Rights leader and Congressman, and Up from the Streets, about New Orleans musicians and their experiences with segregation and racism; a conversation between MFAH Director Gary Tinterow and Ford Foundation President Darren Walker; and panel discussions about activism, abstraction, and photography with artists from the exhibition, including painter Gerald Williams and photographer Adger Cowans.

Exhibition Overview
Soul of a Nation explores what it meant to be a Black artist in America during the tumultuous era that spanned the 1960s and the Civil Rights movement to the early 1980s and the emergence of identity politics. Organized into 13 sections, the exhibition features artists from across the United States, with a special emphasis on aligned groups that evolved in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, and another focus on the work of artist Betye Saar.

The MFAH presentation adds a section featuring a number of works from the Museum’s permanent collection to spotlight Houston’s vital Black American art community during this period. Artists featured in this section include John Biggers, Kermit Oliver, and Carroll Harris Simms, all of whom contributed to the dynamic local arts scene.

○ Spiral
The exhibition opens with the work of the Spiral group, a New York–based collective of 15 artists who formed in response to the August 1963 March on Washington, which drew nearly a quarter of a million people and marked a critical turning point in the Civil Rights movement. These artists, who include Charles Alston, Emma Amos, Romare Bearden, and Norman Lewis, regularly met from 1963 to 1965 to discuss the concept of a “Black aesthetic,” creating powerful work, both abstract and figurative, in response to the Civil Rights movement, and later, calls for Black Power. Norman Lewis’s painting Processional (1965) is an abstract evocation of the Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, march led by Martin Luther King Jr. in early 1965, which was violently dispersed by a police assault. The Spiral group organized one exhibition of their work, all in a black-and-white palette. Later, Black artists would look to Spiral, impressed both by the group’s determination to exhibit together in an artist-run space and by the range of artistic viewpoints of its members.

○ Figuring Black Power
In the mid-1960s, painting and sculpture became powerful vehicles to protest violence against peaceful activism, as well as to echo calls for Black Power from Stokely Carmichael and other leaders of that movement. The haunting imagery of Archibald Motley’s 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) calls up a Klansman’s burning cross, the Crucifixion, and a lynching, as the figures of Martin Luther King Jr. and presidents Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy hover in a spectral haze. Elizabeth Catlett’s wooden sculpture Black Unity (1968) depicts a monumental raised fist while the reverse side shows two placid visages side by side, communicating strength in Black collectivity.

○ Art on the Streets
Excluded from mainstream museum and gallery spaces, Black artists in the late 1960s sought out and created venues to present their work, taking their art to the streets and other alternative spaces. Operating well beyond conventional spaces, these artists inspired and mobilized Black and local audiences. In 1967, the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC), a group of artists and writers in Chicago, created The Wall of Respect, an outdoor mural on the city’s South Side. The wall and its images of “Black Heroes”—civic leaders, writers, musicians, sports stars, and dancers—became a gathering place for poetry readings, music, and performances. The project sparked a wave of murals in Black neighborhoods nationwide.

○ Los Angeles Assemblage
On August 11, 1965, a Los Angeles police officer pulled over a Black motorist in the Watts neighborhood of L.A. The struggle that ensued during her arrest became the spark that ignited long-simmering neighborhood anger, escalating into a conflict with local police and six days of violence that left 34 dead and a neighborhood in ruins. Following the Watts Rebellion, many artists took it upon themselves to restore their community through public art projects, incorporating found objects and detritus in artistic responses to the conflict. Noah Purifoy’s assemblage Watts Riot (1966), made from collaged debris, was first shown in 66 Signs of Neon, an exhibition that took place in Watts. In the catalogue, Purifoy wrote that “the ultimate purpose of this effort was to demonstrate to the community of Watts, to Los Angeles, and to the world at large, that education through creativity is the only way left for a person to find himself through this materialistic world.”

The artist collective AfriCOBRA (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists) formed in Chicago in 1968; its founding members included Jeff Donaldson and Wadsworth Jarrell. The group’s 1970 manifesto declared a uniquely Black art movement based on a shared sensibility, one that diverged from American and European models of Pop Art, Realism, and Abstraction. “The new aesthetic was based on ‘rhythm,’ ‘shine... the rich luster of a just-washed ’fro...’ and ‘Color color Color color that shines, color that is free of rules and regulations.’” Wadsworth Jarrell’s vibrant portrait Revolutionary (Angela Davis) (1971), composed from snippets of transcripts of Davis’ speeches, and Jae Jarrell’s 1970 Brothers Surrounding Sis, a hand-painted dress representing protection and solidarity, are featured in this section.

○ Black Light
Roy DeCarava was one of the first Black photographers to establish a successful career as an independent artist rather than as a photojournalist or studio portraitist. For many, his extraordinary handling of a dark tonal range amounted to a Black aesthetic in photography, as did his choice of subject matter. DeCarava photographed leaders associated with the Civil Rights movement, but he was equally drawn to jazz musicians and everyday people in New York City’s traditionally Black neighborhoods of Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant. DeCarava also served as the first director of the Kamoinge Workshop, a group of Black photographers in Harlem who came together in 1963 to discuss the presence and visibility of Black American photography and to support mutual development. Several images by the younger members, such as Adger Cowans, Herb Robinson, and Ming Smith, are also on view in this section, demonstrating a wide range of stylistic approaches that promoted a positive counterpoint to negative or naive images and written impressions of Harlem.

○ Three Graphic Artists
This section reunites the work of three Los Angeles artists who took independent approaches to the graphic image and were featured in the 1971 exhibition Three Graphic Artists at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA): veteran painter and printmaker Charles White, and the accomplished, but at the time emerging, artists David Hammons and Timothy Washington. Each of the artists depicts the human form in innovative ways in response to social and political events of the time. White was by far the most renowned of the three. Here, his work is represented by an oil wash from his Wanted series, based on Civil War–era notices of runaway slaves and large-scale drawings of expertly rendered figures that emphasize cast shadow and volume. A selection of Hammons’s body prints, which he initiated by coating himself in margarine or cooking fat and pressing his body onto printing paper, are also here. Washington is represented by his celebrated drypoint etchings, presented on their aluminum plates as completed objects.

○ Black Art in Houston
This gallery explores the work of Houston artists, displaying powerful representations of the figure and experimentation with surface and form, and showcasing the legacy of gifted and generous mentors. In the 1950s, painter and printmaker John Biggers and sculptor Carroll Harris Simms established an art program at what is now Texas Southern University. They went on to educate several generations of students not only in the principles of art making, but also in ways to express self-pride and self identity. Biggers and Simms are represented by drawings, paintings, and sculpture, alongside the work of one of their noted protégés, photographer Earlie Hudnall Jr.; and Kermit Oliver, whose evocative, superbly drafted scenes allude to spiritual and personal mythologies.

○ East Coast Abstraction
Based in New York and Washington, DC, the seven artists in this section exhibited together in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But their personal experiences and inclinations manifested themselves in various ways. Sam Gilliam and Jack Whitten created abstract homages to Civil Rights leaders and experiences. Peter Bradley and Ed Clark suffused brushed or sprayed color across large-scale canvases. Virginia Jaramillo’s paintings feature precise bands and lines that cut across vivid painted color fields. William T. Williams connected his compositions and processes to the radical improvisation of jazz, as shown in Hawk’s Return (1969–70), titled after saxophonist Coleman Randolph “Hawk” Hawkins.

○ Black Heroes
Here, portraits of boxers, writers, and painters are displayed together under the concept of the “Black Hero,” which was introduced to artists by OBAC in Chicago in 1967 with The Wall of Respect and defined as “any person who honestly erects the beauty of Black life and genius in his or her style; does not forget his Black brothers and sisters who are less fortunate; does what he does in such an outstanding manner that he or she cannot be imitated or replaced.” This concept prompted artists to paint powerful images not only of famous Black Americans, but also of everyday people. Emma Amos’s painting Eva the Babysitter (1973) honored the woman who helped enable Amos’s artistic practice by babysitting; Barkley Hendricks depicted friends in imagery that appears to come to life on the canvas; and Raymond Saunders paid tribute to heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson.

○ Improvisation and Experimentation
In the early 1970s, Black artists moved away from the conventions of abstract painting and sculpture, and began experimenting with materials and forms. For some artists and critics, this commitment to improvisation and experimentation connected to Black Americans’ ambitions for political freedom. Artists looked back to a history of oppression while celebrating present-day community. Joe Overstreet’s We Came from There to Get Here (1970) features a colorful grid and the outlines of figures giving gestures of empowerment. The canvas is suspended in a way that for the artist suggests a tent as well as the specter of lynching: “I made this art you could hang any place. I felt like a nomad myself, with all the insensitivity in America.” The title and colors of Overstreet’s work indicate a movement from oppression toward freedom. The ghostly outlines of continents in Frank Bowling’s “Map Paintings,” which use stencils of world maps to explore color as its own subject, do not privilege any particular place, but celebrate a more fluid and open idea of identity and belonging to the world. Bold colors characterize Alma Thomas’s paintings, made following a NASA mission to Mars, and former NASA engineer Fred Eversley experimented with casting polyester resin to create his signature “lenses,” translucent discs of radiant color.

○ Betye Saar
In October 1973, the first survey show of Los Angeles–based Betye Saar opened at the Fine Arts Gallery at California State University. This section re-creates one aspect of Betye Saar: Selected Works 1964–1973 through nine works. Inspired by her experience several years earlier with the Field Museum’s collections of African and Oceanic art, Saar began to invest her work with references to ancestral connectedness, ritual objects, and spiritual power. The works on view here, including Nine Mojo Secrets (1971) and Eshu (The Trickster) (1971), marked a fundamental turning point in Saar’s art making.

○ Just Above Midtown
This section is an homage to the gallery Just Above Midtown, active from late 1974 until 1986, which was founded by Linda Goode Bryant, a former director of education at the Studio Museum in Harlem. The gallery recognized the work being made by Black artists and provided a platform for their art to be seen and sold, with a focus on artists making noncommercial, nonrepresentational work, including Dawoud Bey, David Hammons, Senga Nengudi, and Lorraine O’Grady. Soul of a Nation concludes with photographs from a 1983 performance piece that O’Grady orchestrated for the African American Day parade in Harlem. The artist had 15 dancers carry gold-painted frames through the parade route and take photographs of various onlookers within the empty frames Some 400 images were taken over the course of the day, and 40 are featured in this exhibition. Titled Art Is …, the piece overturns the conventions of formal portraiture to celebrate and elevate everyday community.

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