'The ghetto is the gallery': black power and the artists who captured the soul of the struggle

By Steven W Thrasher

What part did black artists play in America’s civil rights struggle? They reinvented Superman and took a seven-mile artwork through Harlem. As the Tate tackles this tumultous era with Soul of a Nation, we meet the show’s star attractions

Can “the soul of a nation” be defined by artists of its most oppressed group? That’s the ambitious goal of Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, about to open at London’s Tate Modern. Through 150 artworks and more than 60 artists, the show aims to represent the United States’ ethical, conscious and moral spirit – its soul – through exhibits made by (and about) people who historically had less life, less liberty, and less wealth than their fellow white citizens.

Framing the show from 1963 to 1983, the curators were led by how artists of the time were responding to Martin Luther King’s mission and the rising, more militant black power movement. So the exhibition encompasses a wide variety of works of black subjects and/or created by black artists, from the depictions of protest and music in Roy DeCarava’s stunning black-and-white photographs (Mississippi Freedom Marcher, Washington, DC, and Coltrane on Soprano, New York, both 1963) to an afro-wearing, bespectacled brother crossing his arms against a grey background, as well as a red, white and blue frame in Barkley L Hendrick’s 1969 work Icon for My Man Superman (Superman Never Saved Any Black People – Bobby Seale).

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