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Soul of a Nation, Tate Modern
Lorraine O'Grady, “Art Is (Girlfriends Time Two)”, 1983/2009. Photograph, C-print. Courtesy of the artist and Alexander Gray Associates, New York© Lorraine O'Grady

Huge survey of Black American art opens in London

With works from the Black Panther Party, Barkley Hendricks, and Lorraine O’Grady – Soul of a Nation celebrates the important contributions of Black artists in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement

“I hope that people have a completely different picture in their mind’s eye when they think about American art. I hope that they can think of so many other artists who will capture their attention and make them want to learn more.”

Zoe Whitley is at the press view of Soul of a Nation, Tate Modern’s latest opening and a years-in-the-making journey that herself, co-curator Mark Godfrey, and assistant curator Priyesh Mistry, have taken – alongside more than 60 Black artists. It’s true – think of American art and names such as Jeff Koons, Jackson Pollock, Robert Mapplethorpe, Cindy Sherman, and Keith Haring, come to mind. There is no denying that they deserve the credit they’ve rightfully been given, yet the scales of diversity have rarely tipped, especially on an international scale. It’s a concern echoed by Godfrey, who told the BBC: “We've done shows about American art for decades – it was a question of why hadn't we done one on African-American art?”

Described by the Tate Modern’s Director Frances Morris as, “A great survey of what should not have been unfamiliar and will no longer be familiar”, Soul of a Nation shines a light on the important work created by Black artists from 1963 (kicked off with Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream Speech”) through to 1983. During and in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, artists working across mediums of performance, abstract art, photography, sculpture, collage, and more, posed questions such as ‘What does it mean to be a Black artist?’ And, ‘what should Black art look like?’ With varying degrees of responses – which makes for a fascinating and broad range of works.

“I hope that people have a completely different picture in their mind’s eye when they think about American art” – Zoe Whitley

Spanning 12 rooms and over 150 works, visitors are first greeted by five screens and powerful footage of speeches from Black revolutionaries such as James Baldwin before they have even entered. Once inside, works included come from Spiral Group, the Black Panther Party’s Minister of Culture Emory Douglas, Benny Andrews, Betye Saar, Barkley Hendricks, Faith Ringgold and Lorraine O’Grady, as well as Andy Warhol and Alice Neel – the only two non-Black artists included – are on show. Many for the first time ever in the UK.

Speaking on the relevance of Soul of a Nation, Whitley told Dazed Digital. “We deserve to give these artists their due and to acknowledge what they've given to not only the history of art but also the history of art in America. The questions they were asking connect so much to how we live and how we think about the role that creativity has in society. The fact that in 1963 they were asking those big existential questions, ‘Why are we here?’, ‘What are we going to do about systemic exclusion? or institutional racism?’ They didn't agree on the answers to these questions; they didn't all agree that Black art was a thing – the same thing is true with artists now, and why shouldn’t it be? In terms of thinking about a series of questions that feel really relevant and that resonate with people, but not trying to prescribe one answer to it – that's why it's relevant now.”

The curators also announced that the show will open in the US in the future.

Coinciding with the exhibition is a series of events, with talks from filmmaker Kahlil Joseph and Spike Lee, a curator’s tour and as a workshop that will explore how the exhibition relates to contemporary social issues. More details can be found here.

Soul of a Nation runs at Tate Modern from 12 July – 22 October 2017