‘Soul of a Nation’ Gives Black Artists Long-Overdue Visibility

A new exhibit at the de Young on loan from the Tate Modern showcases decades of Black American art.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. is the most important American museum to open in the past decade. Its massive, ground-floor photo montage shows every historical aspect of the Black American experience. The museum, which opened in 2016, exhibits an impressive collection of art and art history, but it’s not an art museum — which is why the United States needs traveling art exhibits like “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983.” 

The exhibit chronicles an era of Black art in a way that’s similar to the approach of the National Museum of African American History and Culture: by introducing us to scores of people — many widely known, but many hardly at all beyond small circles — who, in different geographical locations, collectively comprise a vital period of American history. 

Art history is often reduced to a handful of “famous” artists, but “Soul of a Nation” gives credit where credit is due: to artists who — even without prestigious gallery representation or museum shows at the time — were making art that had something important to say, and said it well. “Soul of a Nation,” which opened last weekend at the de Young Museum, raises two important questions: Why did it take a prestigious London museum (the Tate Modern) to initiate an exhibit about historical Black art in America, and why weren’t the artists in “Soul of a Nation” more widely celebrated in the early 1960s through the early 1980s? 

The answers are related — and also point to a still-relevant issue, says Linda Goode Bryant, the founding director of Just Above Midtown, a New York gallery space that existed from 1974 to 1986 and was the first to exhibit work by African-American artists in a major gallery district. At the de Young, “Soul of a Nation” celebrates Just Above Midtown in one of its nine thematic galleries. 

“It makes sense, quite frankly, because for an American institution to have initiated this show — in the way it’s presented — would have made these institutions admit something they have a hard time admitting, and still do not admit right now, in this moment: That it was you [the institutions] who were responsible for keeping people out,” Bryant told SF Weekly at the de Young press review for “Soul of a Nation.” “And we said, ‘Fuck you.’ That’s really what it was. We said, ‘We exist. We are free within ourselves. It has nothing to do with you.’ So then how do you put this in an institution now and not acknowledge that, and not question what it means going forward?” 

“Soul of a Nation” opens with art from the Spiral group, a collective of New York African-American artists who organized in 1963 and exhibited work in 1965 that was solely in black and white. Romare Bearden was Spiral’s best-known artist, but members included Charles Alston, Norman Lewis, Hale Woodruff, and Emma Amos, its only female participant whose work in the de Young’s thematic gallery is a canvas of smudges, swooshes, drops, and layers that are the essence of abstraction. Amos’ untitled work seems void of anything political. But inches away at the de Young is Norman Lewis’ 1960 black-and-white painting called America the Beautiful, which at first glance is another abstract canvas but whose semi-formed shapes include hoods, crosses, and other contours that connote the Ku Klux Klan. And there’s Lewis’ Processional, whose giant, horizontal light beam of white shapes — sandwiched between thick black borders — references the 1965 civil rights marches in Alabama that were some of the era’s most defining acts. Lewis took part in the massive 1963 March on Washington protest that culminated in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, but he didn’t want paintings like Processional and America the Beautiful to be defined just through a social lens. Lewis, who died in 1979, said in 1966 of Processional: “I am not interested in an illustrative statement that merely mirrors some of the social conditions, but in my work I am for something of deeper artistic and philosophical content.”   

This “deeper” vision defines the art throughout “Soul of a Nation,” including Roy DeCarava’s photography from the 1960s and ’70s. DeCarava will always have a place in the canon of photography for his jazz photos and civil rights images, but among the de Young’s stunning pieces is DeCarava’s 1978 work called Across the street, night, New York — a moody, atmospheric look at a row of Harlem houses that plays with light, darkness, and shadows. 

DeCarava was the first African-American photographer to receive a Guggenheim fellowship, and “Soul of a Nation” connects him to the wider community of Black photographers, including those at the Harlem-centered Kamoinge Workshop. DeCarava, who died in 2009, was the workshop’s first director, but the group included many, many others, including Beuford Smith, who founded The Black Photographers Annual — a seminal review in the mid-1970s that featured Black photographers capturing the lives of other Black Americans. Few cultural funders wanted to support The Black Photographers Annual, just like few higher-ups at museums and mainstream media outlets wanted to publish images by African-American photographers that showed African-Americans leading everyday lives. It took five years for The Black Photographers Annual to become a reality, but Smith wasn’t willing to give up, and an African-American funder named Joe Crawford was — after three years — finally able to provide the money, Smith said at the de Young’s press preview. 

“If Joe Crawford hadn’t come up with the money, we couldn’t have published it,” said Smith, a vaunted photographer who is Kamoinge Workshop’s president-emeritus. “I tried to get the money from other people. One guy was going to give us $10,000 to do it, but we had to do pornographic movies [for him]. And I said, ‘No, we’re not going to get involved in nothing like that.’ ” 

The exhibit’s iteration at the de Young includes the work of Bay Area artists but drops some work that was on display in London and other venues. What remains, without question, is a sense that the artists in “Soul of a Nation” were part of a milestone civil rights push. Their contributions and their art may have been overlooked at the time, or may have been categorized as “black art” rather than “art,” or may have been isolated in exhibits without context or backstories. “Soul of a Nation” tries to reintroduce those backstories as it connects the artists and their work to the civil-rights changes that were enacted through marches, bloodshed, tumult, and personal hardship. American flags are a motif that reoccurs in the more than 150 works. David Hammons’ body print and silkscreen work from 1968, Boy with Flag, is an especially jarring piece. And Faith Ringgold’s American People Series #18: The Flag Is Bleeding, from 1967, is a wall-sized lineup of unified Black and White people locked in arms even as blood has splattered all around them. 

Ringgold, who was born in Harlem, was one of many African-American artists who led protests against New York’s august art institutions in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Those same institutions have since embraced her work, as in MoMA’s 2016 purchase of Ringgold’s American People Series #20: Die, which is much more graphic than American People Series #18: The Flag Is Bleeding. In an email interview with SF Weekly, Ringgold — who’ll turn 90 next year — says these earlier American People pieces have new relevance because they’re connecting with audiences at a more advanced time in American culture. “We are living,” Ringgold says, “in a different time where ethnicity is reflected in art, culture, and dance. That makes people more familiar with it.” 

“Soul of a Nation” arrives in San Francisco from a run at The Broad in Los Angeles, after earlier runs at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, and the Brooklyn Museum. The Tate Modern debuted the exhibit in 2017, and the exhibit’s co-curator, Mark Godfrey, tells SF Weekly that the Tate could organize “Soul of a Nation” because the museum is outside the United States and could see that an exhibit of this scope was needed to understand a fundamental period of African-American art. 

In the end, it matters less that “Soul of a Nation” originated outside the United States and more that “Soul of a Nation” found its way here, and that the exhibit’s soul-stirring art — like Barkley Hendricks’ What’s Going On and Betye Saar’s The Liberation of Aunt Jemima — can be united in the same space, achieving a level of unity and attention that was unimaginable at the start of the tumultuous 1960s and even the 1970s. 

“Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983”

Through March 8 at the de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr. (Golden Gate Park). $10-$25, 415-750-3600, deyoung.famsf.org.

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