Soul of a Nation review – the extraordinary art of the black power era

By Laura Cumming

Tate Modern, London
Civil rights meet aesthetics in this riveting survey of 20 crucial years of black American art and struggle

A man with shades and a perfectly picked afro stands against a flat silver background. He is dressed in a Superman T-shirt. His muscular arms are folded in a painting as sharply defined as a medieval icon, yet as modern as his aviator shades. The canvas, from 1969, is highly stylised and irreducibly cool.

This is the self-portrait of Barkley L Hendricks, who died in April at the age of 72. Its visual double take – black man in white man's costume, and in his painterly tradition – is multiplied by the mordant title. Icon for My Man Superman (Superman Never Saved Any Black People – Bobby Seale) quotes a famous remark of the founder of the Black Panthers. But Hendricks has no need of Superman. He saves himself – hero of his own fiercely intelligent painting.

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