The Soul of a Nation: Mixing sociology with art

A good theme, excellent artists, relevant debate. What could possibly go wrong?

Tate Modern just finished showing its version of the Afro-American arts scene since 1963. As anyone who have ever lived in the United States, I used to see “black art” as somehow a mainstream thing. Whether because it stemmed directly from the media-oriented protests, branded t-shirt activism, or because black art/activism covered all displays of outrage that jumped to the headlines. Black artists have always pursued to talk directly to the government, to the police or to whoever was being accused of blocking racial equality, this direct voice created its public overtime.

Otherwise seeing this vast, intense, and often violent artistic legacy in any exhibition is something else. I am talking about witnessing bright work hanging on the well as a canvas painting, or sitting comfortably putting my eyes on a video art, or watching a pre-recorded performance. To that notion of “art” as a record, black art has existed as posters, logos, icons, magazine covers, chants, and demonstration slogans, but all this has its body and soul on the streets, and which, once leaves its activism realm, it somehow loses its shout, and while admired as laborious art, it ends up losing its identity.

That is what I saw at Tate Modern. In other words, is it necessary to put up an exhibition in a world-class museum to digest what are actually decades of street fight and disruption? Once you become part of this entity, “the public”, you, the critical spectator, ask yourself if this paradoxical transference of artifacts from the street to the art gallery compromises what art has to give to civil rights movements, legitimacy, and uniqueness that makes it speak when everyone is silent.

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Carolyn Mims Lawrence

Not that I believe in native environments for anything, especially for art. Yet, once it is collected, well-kept in museums, it must convince the middle classes that all blood and sweat was worthwhile, which means a completely different discourse, and a fine cut that may not necessarily reconnect with what it was intended for.

It is at this latter stage of archiving and acceptance that we find the South of a Nation exhibition. It is a packaging and re-packaging that makes us all glad that such powerful movements, such as the Black Panthers remained powerful existed. Better, that they continue current, urgent through their art. Even under gated walls that ticket holders are blocked, CCTVs, and ‘no pictures’ signs, that thing I saw in the aseptic white-cube has indeed retained something of its original anger of true 1960s’ American black art. It is the message that it is still flaming, you still see that thick block fonts on black people newspaper that focus on the essential: rights for the people, let’s call prejudice for what it is. That part takes our breath away.

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In any case, the merit of this exhibition is this focus on the corpus that transcended the decades in good shape. There were right decisions. Mixing artists such Emory Douglas, the Black Panthers’ Minister of Culture, a set of posters and violence-inspired with the romantic murals by Norman Lewis; or taking the incendiary Dana Chandler and putting it a few steps away from the cool canvas portraits by Barkley L Hendricks. By doing so, Tate curators have clearly revealed their engagement with what a ‘panorama’ means, pushing for low and high voices, elegant and thick aesthetics, but all are about creating clamor, mobilizing people.

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Barkley L Hendricks

On the other hand, I would still argue that such constraint of seeing activist art as a a document did not mean necessarily completely negative. After all, this is all history, despite the negative conjuncture that continues to affect Afro-Americans to this day and could easily see itself represented here. The benefit of a show like this is about displaying history, rather than making activism a total act in itself, it is about the extent to which curators can cure such deep divisions by presenting it harmonised with them, the critics, and with us, the public. Look, it does not bite! Alas, each of these posters and painted characters have already been thought as media-tailored materials, that is what activist art is aimed at: maybe here we consecrated what was born to shine.

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Looking too much in retrospect, though, Tate curators acted like sociologists delimiting a field where explosive discussions were not mean to stay limited. The excess in this mediation was when curators invited other realms of Black Art as if everything could be part of this cure. For example, what to make of Melvin Edwards’s Lynching Fragments, which remembers a tragic episode in American history (which would deserve an exhibition of its own), but which gets only a small corner. How to theorize this work along with others? I think it is needless to place it within a theoretical framework, we risk feasting ourselves on the remains of a barbarity but which takes us five seconds because “there is a lot to see”.

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Ermory Douglas

In reality, nobody should explain what that means, as nobody should explain any atrocity. They are art, activism, expression on their own right, they are an explosion. Explaining the tragedy behind art in small, delicate notes attached to the wall, as we ramble through these strategically planned rooms, is on one hand, naïve, on the other, pointlessly constraining. If aimed at reviving such time, curators could be accused of anachronism; as they tried to explain it, they can be accused of conformism.

From both worlds, I would still go for an art exhibition that could just show the records and let the public to choose their interpretation of what was like being a black person in the US, and what was like art if made by a black person.

The crucial problem of this exhibition, despite its importance and good intention, is turning too cozy with reductionist concepts such as “black diversity”. That happens when such broad take is intended, by inviting, for instance, very distinct artists operating in abstractionism and sculpture. These works, such as Martin Puryear’s beautiful, shiny, monolithic sculpture, have lots of merits, but they should be analyzed apart from the black experience as activism and outrage.

Was the show’s idea to show rebellion? Was it to show subjectivities in action? The Soul of a Nation should be more about the soul of that moment, as black artists are many, and are varied, they want to talk about black bodies but in a number of (other) situations.

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To be fair, the fact is that among the many present artists,  their expression does not exist in either lyricism or angry protest only. The problem here is to assume that they are only this, and their art, once transplanted to Tate Modern, has ceased to belong to the streets, and more, they are no longer  living media of whatever they want to achieve before and now. Let’s be honest, some artists only want to do art.

To preach the “black exceptionalism” credo by showing diversity is positive, but there is lots to talk about on survival, acceptance and pride before we can turn to the depth aimed by a handful of black artists (and why not white, mixed-race artists also part of this conversation). In terms of coherence and focus, the 2016 New Museum residency of Black Women Artists for the Black Lives Matter reached this archetype of show with a higher degree of sensitivity, at same time showing massive support for the cause.

The risk of cataloguing things is to repeat the daily news, to narrate facts as if they were all fit for one purpose, that of victimization and tragedy. If the exhibition does a good job in debating crucial artworks of the 60s and 70s, informing a frequently under-informed British public, it should be done on its entirety (with non-activist, reflexive art as well). But if the idea is to allow visitors to recover, and analyze the so-called “black power” moment, we should not be constrained by the breadth of what are actually hundreds of artists operating in main big US cities. The retrospective should include handcraft, Afro-religious, Anti-Slavery “ancient” art.

Especially for what was lost to contemporaneity, an ideal exhibition would be more incisive about showing to a young person what is really like being ‘engaged’. It is not only  Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” video the ultimate piece black activism, it is much more. For that reason, it is frustrating that the show embarked into a peaceful, but insufficient dialogue with history.

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At the end of it, The Soul of a Nation resembles more a sociological take, but also in a negative way, because of its praise for balance, memorabilia outlook, that says goodbye to the visitor by playing top 10 hits by black artists, as if blockbuster culture was the symbol of a healing that never came – “What’s going on?”

Maybe making things less nice could have disturbed visitors, led them to a greater discomfort in face of the blood, sweat, and tears of black artists and activists.

Ideally, we should have had a brief parallel with life in the UK, where black young men not rarely die by the hands of the police. To what extent are we only talking about soul of one nation? The risk of interpreting the other’s past, making it to make it too palatable, is telling another story, that of our contempt.