Black Art UK/US

Richard Hylton discusses the rise in thematic shows of black artists

Elizabeth Catlett, <em>Black Unity</em>, 1968

Elizabeth Catlett, Black Unity, 1968

Is it time to move beyond survey shows featuring the same artists and nostalgic recreations of the 1960s to engage with contemporary black art in less instrumental ways?

From Black Art and the Harlem Renaissance to the Black Arts Movement and the Black Atlantic, to Black Power and back again. The UK’s most prestigious public art galleries are seemingly taking it in turns to present their blockbuster black art exhibiton. Never has black art history had it so good.

‘Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power’ at Tate Modern and ‘The Place is Here’ at Nottingham Contemporary (before travelling to South London Gallery and MIMA, Middlesbrough) are the latest exhibitions which in different ways fixate on narratives of the past. But do these exhibitions offer new insights and bring us any closer to really knowing the artists they profess to celebrate? Or, alternatively, are they symptomatic of the obligatory once-in-a-decade African-American exhibition or the black British survey? Are the politics behind these shows more significant than the politics within them? Does a fixation on black artists and the past reflect an institutional ruse for not dealing with black artists in the present? ‘Soul of a Nation’ is but the latest in a number of recent historical exhibitions which identify the 1960s as a significant period and starting point for reconsidering work by primarily African-American artists. It enters a field populated by other shows initiated and toured across the US, including the Walker Art Center’s exhibition ‘Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art’ in Minneapolis in 2013, ‘The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music 1965 to Now’ at Chicago’s MCA in 2015 and, this year, ‘We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women 1965–85’ at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. Notably, ‘Soul of a Nation’ also comes hot on the heels of ‘Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the 1960s’, an earlier exhibition organised by the Brooklyn Museum in 2014. Staged to mark the 50th anniversary of the US’s Civil Rights Act of 1964, ‘Witness’, more than any other of the recent crop of exhibitions, anticipates these later shows, not least the crossover in themes and a similar line-up of artists, including Benny Andrews, Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, David Hammons, Jae Jarrell, Norman Lewis, Joe Outterbridge, Faith Ringgold, Betye Saar, Raymond Saunders, Andy Warhol and Charles White. ‘Witness’ also presented an interesting, if unexplored, conundrum about the delineation between civil rights and Black Power. For example, both ‘Witness’ and ‘Soul of a Nation’ use a painting by the late Barkley L Hendricks on their respective catalogue covers.

Significantly, however, ‘Witness’ was not a black survey exhibition. It included works by a significant number of white American and mainly male artists, such as Richard Avedon, Jim Dine, Robert Rauschenberg, Larry Rivers, Norman Rockwell and James Rosenquist, as well as a multiracial line-up of documentary photographers, such as Bruce Davidson, Charles Moore, Gordon Parks and Ernest C Withers. Such an approach assumes particular significance given that ‘Soul of a Nation’ uses the ‘age of Black Power’ and the work of black artists as thematic binding agents. Also, instead of presenting a chronology of events, ‘Soul of a Nation’ was concerned with ‘different aesthetic strategies and debates circling around what it meant to be a black artist at the time’. Divided into 12 rooms, these strategies and debates focused on various artistic practices emerging in a number of cities, including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Such a curatorial armature appears useful as a way of defining what the curators considered to be characteristic narratives of the period, but problems arise when condensing over 70 artists and many more artworks from a 30-year period.

Although the artist group Spiral is central to ‘Soul of a Nation’s starting point, the black-and-white works of its two prominent figures, Norman Lewis and Romare Bearden, appeared cramped in a space which doubled as a general introduction to the show. This may seem like nit-picking, but Lewis’s eerily and visually ambiguous painting America the Beautiful, 1960, certainly merited more space and time, as did Bearden’s The Prevalence of Ritual: Baptism, 1964. Similarly, in another room, titled Figuring Black Power, Elizabeth Catlett’s refined double-sided carving, Black Unity, 1968, appeared oddly understated and inappropriately juxtaposed with Faith Ringgold’s bloody, graphic-style painting, American People Series #20 Die, 1967. Although produced within a year of each other they also speak to distinctly diferent artistic traditions: whereas Catlett subverts modernist appropriation of African sculpture, Ringgold draws on a pop aesthetic. Betye Saar and David Hammons were well represented in the exhibition, compared with other artists – for instance, Joe Overstreet and Sam Gilliam were represented by one and two works respectively, which barely scratched the surface of their individual practices. Almost any one of the thematically arranged rooms, such as Improvisation and Experimentation or Figuring Black Power, could have been the basis of an exhibition. Perhaps the legacy of recent shows such as ‘Radical Presence’ and ‘Freedom Principle’ prohibited such an approach.

‘Soul of a Nation’ is an enterprising venture. Hip title, accompanied by a Soul Jazz Records album release, artists’ tote bags and an adaptation of BBC Radio 4’s Black Panther Assata Shakur’s autobiography – cultural and commercial dots were well and truly joined up. What does another survey show of African-American art contribute to our knowledge of art history? Why include over 70 artists? Why focus on a particular 30-year period?

Newspaper coverage of ‘Soul of a Nation’ was predictably enthusiastic but equally untroubled in its almost gleeful level of ignorance about much of the work in the exhibition. The Financial Times described the show as presenting a ‘prodigious range of artistic expression’, the New Statesman considered it ‘a genuinely revelatory exhibition’, while the Telegraph declared it ‘an epic subject and without doubt one of the shows of the year’. Such backslapping and high-fiving is instructive, because it is devoid of historical and critical perspective. A significant number of artists in ‘Soul of a Nation’ have featured in other blockbuster survey exhibitions staged in the UK, such as ‘Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance’ at the Hayward Gallery in London in 1997; ‘Back to Black: Art, Cinema and the Racial Imaginary’ at the Whitechapel Gallery in London and New Art Gallery Walsall in 2005; and ‘Afro Modern: Journeys Through the Black Atlantic’ at Tate Liverpool in 2010 (Reviews AM334). Such toing and froing across the Atlantic of a relatively small selection of African-American artists’ work has become so routine that now it requires an algorithmic-type study to chart the correlation between artists, artworks and survey exhibitions. In my unscientific analysis, Bearden’s collages, The Prevalence of Ritual: Baptism and The Dove, both 1964, appeared in ‘Soul of a Nation’, ‘Afro Modern’ and ‘Back to Black’. Catlett’s Black Unity was also included in ‘Back to Black’. Hammons has featured in no fewer than three survey exhibitions, Hendricks two and so forth. Painter Archibald Motley has the distinction of being included in both ‘Rhapsodies in Black’ and ‘Soul of a Nation’ with works produced in the 1920s and 1960s respectively. Bearden, Catlett and Motley all led distinguished and notably lengthy careers. Notwithstanding Arthur Jafa’s recent and lavishly staged Serpentine Sackler Gallery exhibition, the survey model prevails.

In recent years, numerous major solo exhibitions featuring African-American artists have taken place across the US. These have included Bearden, Gilliam, Lewis and Barbara Chase-Riboud. Motley died in 1981 but recently received belated and posthumous recognition with a substantial retrospective organised by Nasher Museum at Duke University, which toured to five major museums including the Whitney Museum of American Art. In 2008, Hendricks received a first career retrospective, ‘Birth of the Cool’, also at the Nasher Museum, which unlike Motley came within his lifetime. Suffice to say that none of these shows have made it to the UK. ‘Soul of a Nation’ will, however, tour to the US in 2018-19.

In his recent book, 1971: A Year in the Life of Color, US art historian Darby English considers attempts to ‘restore attention’ to a number of important but marginalised African-American artists and notes that ‘none of these efforts actually historicises the intervening 40-year silence around these artists, or the fact that silence is the result of a specific force and specific strategies, many of which still operate through the methods of the recovery agents themselves’. English reminds us of the disjuncture between seemingly generous acts of historical recovery and ulterior institutional agendas. As English suggests, the recent attention bestowed on African-American artists in the US is by no means a silver bullet. Such attempts at historical recovery are often partial, if not paradoxical, in their tendency to simultaneously recoup and deny certain legacies and practices of exclusion. While the US’s gallery system is by no means a paragon of plurality, it remains streets ahead of the UK’s. Save for a handful of exceptions, including the Barbican Art Gallery’s current show ‘Basquiat: Boom for Real’, occasional blowout African-American survey exhibitions continue to prevail.

‘Soul of a Nation’ is, in the UK, part of a historical continuum. Since it opened in 2000, Tate Modern has yet to present a major exhibition by a senior African-American artist. In this corresponding period, it has presented exhibitions by the likes of Eva Hesse, Georgia O’Keeffe, Robert Rauschenberg and Bruce Nauman, not to mention Gabriel Orozco and Wolfgang Tillmans. In this context, the claim made by the curators of ‘Soul of a Nation’ that ‘the story of art in America is incomplete without acknowledging Black American artists’ rings hollow.

English’s observations about ‘recovery agents’ and historical silences can usefully be applied to the recent swathe of historically based exhibitions involving black British artists. These have included ‘Blk Art Group 1983-1984’ at Graves Art Gallery in Sheffield, ‘No Colour Bar: Black British Art in Action 1960-1990’ at the Guildhall Art Gallery in London and ‘Black Art in Focus’ at Wolverhampton Art Gallery. As recovery agent par excellence, Tate Britain has, over the past decade, slowly positioned itself at the vanguard of expediting this process of historical recovery – an exemplar being ‘Thin Black Line(s)’ in 2011, a reworking of ‘The Thin Black Line’ curated by Lubaina Himid and originally presented in the ICA corridor exhibition space in 1985. There are many other examples, including displays involving artists such as Donald Rodney, Anwar Jalal Shemza and Frank Bowling. There have also been notable recent acquisitions of work by Rasheed Araeen, Keith Piper and Eddie Chambers, from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s respectively. The documentary photography exhibition ‘Stan Firm Inna Inglan: Black Diaspora in London, 1960-70s’ brings together the work of Bandele ‘Tex’ Ajetunmobi, Raphael Albert, James Barnor, Colin Jones, Neil Kenlock, Dennis Morris, Syd Shelton and Al Vandenberg. Such activities clearly serve a wider public benefit in rightfully diversifying and enhancing public collections and perceptions of British (art) history. But do such acts of recovery and recognition inherently adequately redress the decades of historical neglect?

‘The Place is Here’ (Reviews AM404), organised by Nottingham Contemporary (an expanded version of ‘Thinking Back: A Montage of Black Art in Britain’ shown at Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, 2016) and touring to South London Gallery and MIMA, is the largest of the recent historical exhibitions about black art. Although organised prior to ‘Soul of a Nation’ its curatorial rationale bears an uncanny resemblance to it, in that it was organised thematically rather than chronologically and reflected on ‘some of the urgent and wide-ranging conversations taking place between black artists, writers, thinkers and institutions in the UK in the 1980s’. Much celebrated, ‘The Place is Here’ illustrates the paradox and limitations in the current fetishisation of the history of black art. The number of artists included in the exhibition is significant: there were over 40, too many to list in full, and therein lies the problem with such broadsweeping, all-inclusive exhibitions.

Eddie Chambers’s book Roots & Culture: Cultural Politics in the Making of Black Britain, 2016, represents a timely analysis of an of en overlooked period in the UK’s recent cultural history. While this wave of exhibitions about black artistic practice have often tended to fixate on the 1980s, Chambers argues that the work of black visual artists produced in the early 1980s needs and in fact warrants being read within the wider social, political and cultural contexts from which it emerged. As Chambers points out, ‘Black creativity of the 1980s and related developments in Black cultural identity are most effectively understood in the context of the decade that preceded it, the 1970s.’ Roots & Culture represents a counter-narrative to the recent abundance of revisionist initiatives around black artists’ history in the UK. It draws from a reservoir of literature spanning sociology, culture, politics and history, and considers visual art within a wider cultural context in which reggae and dub poetry played crucial roles in expressing and catching the mood of black Britain. The momentum created by ‘The Place is Here’ and other recent exhibitions has undoubtedly benefited Himid, for instance, catapulting her to a Turner Prize nomination. However, there exists a substantial and thus far unaudited account of the processes and institutional motivations which suddenly enable this to happen. As Chambers reminds us: ‘For better or for worse, separate spaces and locations, separate cultural expressions and separate channels for Black creativity indicated the extent to which Black Britain was a somewhat separate and different entity to the rest of Britain.’ Roots & Culture represents and highlights the importance of historicising and contextualising black Britain and the work of black artists. That exhibitions such as ‘The Place is Here’ and ‘No Colour Bar’ were not accompanied by publications tells its own story.

Today, there appears to be a correlation between the absence of criticality and the availability of substantial funding for retrograde initiatives. The Diaspora Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale has all the hallmarks of an ‘ethnic arts’ exhibition of the past. It also appears particularly suspect, if not out of step with the recent Venice Biennale in 2015 curated by Okwui Enwezor, where an international line-up of black artists was not ring-fenced by their ethnicity. As with others organised in the UK, the problem is not the focus on black and Asian artists per se, but that the rationale for doing so rarely goes beyond ethnicity and skin colour. The Diaspora Pavilion abdicates responsibility for how it frames artists. Its organisers, the International Curators Forum, informs us that: ‘The Diaspora Pavilion is conceived as a challenge to the prevalence of national pavilions within the structure of an international biennale and takes its form from the coming together of 19 artists whose practices in many ways expand, complicate and even destabilise diaspora as a term, whilst highlighting the continued relevance that diaspora as a lived reality holds today.’ On what basis should a project about diaspora presented within an international context be limited to artists from one country and primarily from its capital city?

The idea of a Diaspora Pavilion at Venice had the potential to offer something that was more challenging and probing. Today, pluralism is an integral component of the biennale circuit. Like many other international art exhibitions, the Venice Biennale bends over backwards to appear more culturally inclusive. Why did the organisers feel compelled to include so many different artists? One or two of these artists supported by an endowment from the £300,000 awarded by Arts Council England could have been a marker. Although time will tell, past evidence shows us that such initiatives tend to perpetuate rather than break traditions.

The university-based research project Black Artists & Modernism (BAM) has been formed to offer new perspectives on art history. The project’s website asks the provocative question: ‘How do artists of African and Asian descent in Britain feature in the story of 20th century art?’ Activities such as the two-day conference at Tate Britain, ‘Now and then … Here and there’, and the 30-minute radio programme Black Art Matters on Donald Rodney represent some of its more tangible outputs to date. Sophie Orlando, a BAM researcher, has separately published British Black Art: Debates on Western Art History (Reviews AM404). We continue to wait for BAM itself to really spark into life but a research project offering critical, insightful and, crucially, disinterested perspectives on historical and contemporary art practice is precisely what is required.

‘Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power’, Tate Modern, London 12 July to 22 October 2017. ‘The Place is Here’, Nottingham Contemporary, 4 February to 1 May and South London Gallery, 22 June to 10 September 2017. Diaspora Pavilion is part of the Venice Biennale 13 May to 26 November 2017.

Richard Hylton is cultural programme curator, James Hockey and Foyer Galleries, University for the Creative Arts, Farnham. The exhibition he has curated of new paintings by Eugene Palmer opens at the galleries in early 2018.

First published in Art Monthly 410: October 2017.

Sponsored Links