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Soul of a Nation opens at de Young Museum
Installation Photography of "Soul of the Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983" at the de Young museum. Photography by Gary Sexton.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA.- The internationally acclaimed exhibition Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power is on view in San Francisco this fall. Celebrating the works that African American artists created during two pivotal decades in American history (1963–1983), the exhibition—organized by Tate Modern, London—examines the very purpose of art and the role of artists in society. Featuring more than 150 works by over 60 artists, the de Young museum presentation uniquely includes works closely connected to the San Francisco Bay Area. Soul of a Nation captures a turbulent time when race and identity were central issues in American society, much as they continue to be today.

“The artists featured in Soul of a Nation were on the front lines of creating social and political change,” says Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “Their work changed the course of the art historical canon, and with this exhibition we continue to tell a truer, more holistic story of what American art is. The work is as relevant today as it was when created. It is my distinct honor to welcome this incredibly important exhibition to the de Young museum in San Francisco and introduce these artists to the next generation of changemakers.”

Commencing in 1963, the year of the March on Washington and in the height of the Civil Rights Movement, the exhibition examines the impact of key historical events, and diverse cultural influences including music and literature. Galvanized by the spirit of the times, and the struggle for equality and justice, many artists created images that promoted individual and collective strength, solidarity, and resistance. The call for Black Power generated powerful representational images of political leaders such as Wadsworth Jarrell’s Black Prince (1971) [Malcolm X], and John Outterbridge’s About Martin (1975) [Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.], who were fighting for equality and justice. Reclaiming the African roots of abstraction from European and American modernists, artists, such as William T. Williams and Joe Overstreet focused primarily on color, form, and concept. Photographers such as Roy DeCarava depicted the diversity, complexity, and beauty of ordinary African Americans, trying to live their lives in the midst of a racist society. Together their art changed the face and future of America.

“The powerful and provocative artworks on view in Soul of a Nation offer eloquent testimony regarding the singular power of art to confront might with right, to empower individuals and communities, and to inspire cultural pride and solidarity,” notes Timothy Anglin Burgard, Curator in Charge of American Art at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “The core messages and meanings of these historical works retain their contemporary relevance and resonance, showing how far the nation has progressed, but also how many important issues still remain unresolved.”

The artists represented in Soul of a Nation worked all over the United States and across multiple mediums, including figurative and abstract painting, prints, photography, assemblage, collage, sculpture, street murals, performance, and even custom clothing. The de Young’s presentation also includes an expanded selection of works by African American artists working in the San Francisco Bay Area. Works with Bay Area connections include Emory Douglas’s lithographs with cutting social commentary for The Black Panther newspaper (late1960s / early 1970s), and Wadsworth Jarrell’s Revolutionary (1972), a kaleidoscopic portrait of Angela Davis.

Additional works range from Betye Saar’s found-object collages such as Ten Mojo Secrets (1972) to Melvin Edwards’s twisted metal “Lynch Fragment” sculptures (1960s). Norman Lewis’s enormous Processional (1965) evokes the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Elizabeth Catlett’s wooden sculpture Black Unity (1968) takes the shape of a giant Black Power fist. Dana C. Chandler Jr.’s Fred Hampton’s Door 2 (1975) commemorates the murder of Black Panther Fred Hampton with a bullet-ridden door. Faith Ringgold’s American People Series #18: The Flag is Bleeding (1967) features a bleeding American flag with black and white figures in the background.

Additional artists represented in the exhibition include Benny Andrews, Romare Bearden, Dawoud Bey, Frank Bowling, Roy DeCarava, Sam Gilliam, David Hammons, Barkley L. Hendricks, Alvin Loving, John Outterbridge, Joe Overstreet, Noah Purifoy, Martin Puryear, Alma Thomas, Charles White, and Jack Whitten.

Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power is on view at the de Young museum from November 9, 2019, through March 8, 2020. The exhibition is curated by Mark Godfrey, Senior Curator, International Art and Zoe Whitley, Curator, International Art, Tate Modern. The de Young presentation is curated by Timothy Anglin Burgard, Curator in Charge of American Art and Lauren Palmor, Assistant Curator of American Art, at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Soul of a Nation is organized into ten sections, grouped by movements, geography, galleries, ideas, collectives, and the overall exploration of what it meant to be a Black artist from 1963 to 1983.

The exhibition takes the influential Spiral collective as its point of departure. In 1963 a group of 15 artists, (founded by Romare Bearden, Charles Alston, Norman Lewis, and Hale Woodruff), convened to discuss whether a collective “Negro” art aesthetic could exist. Although the group did not agree on a shared aesthetic, they mounted a single group exhibition in 1965, agreeing to show only works in black and white. This gallery honors the work of the Spiral collective, featuring pieces related to First Group Showing: Works in Black and White, including Lewis’s work America the Beautiful, a haunting image of black-and-white figures that, upon closer inspection, reveals figures of the menacing hoods worn by members of the Ku Klux Klan.

The next gallery, “Black Light,” examines the Black aesthetic within photography. Notably, Roy DeCarava, one of the first Black photographers to establish a successful career as an independent artist rather than photojournalist, pioneered the use of shadow and dark tones. As seen in works such as Across the street, night, New York and Five men 1964, DeCarava finds a synthesis between his velvety style and subject matter, showcasing the everyday lives of Black Americans.

In 1971, two art preparators at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), Claude Booker and Cecil Fergerson, formed the Black Arts Council, which pressured LACMA to organize exhibitions and programs for Black art. The first exhibition resulting from their internal lobbying was titled Three Graphic Artists. This exhibition featured the work of three artists in Los Angeles, including painter and muralist Charles White, sculptural and installation artist David Hammons, and mixed-media assemblage artist Timothy Washington. White, Hammons, and Washington each made their own remarkable contributions to the development of printmaking in America, and their works are on view in the third gallery of Soul of a Nation.

The “Los Angeles Assemblage” gallery illustrates the profundity of artistic responses to the Watts Rebellion (widely known as the Watts Riots), which broke out on August 11, 1964. After a White California Highway Patrol officer pulled over Marquette Frye, a young Black motorist, tensions mounted erupting into five days of destructive violence. After the riots ceased, many artists took it upon themselves to restore their community through public art projects, as seen in the works of Noah Purifoy and Melvin Edwards, both of whom incorporated detritus and found objects into their artistic responses to the event.

In this same gallery, we spotlight 11 works by the prolific and pioneering artist Betye Saar. Of note is one of Saar’s most renowned pieces, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima. Saar created this work specifically for an exhibition at Berkeley’s Black cultural center, Rainbow Sign (led by the charismatic impresario Mary Ann Pollar), for an exhibition titled Black Heroes. The assemblage piece features a small box that contains an “Aunt Jemima” mammy figure wielding a gun. In her first overtly political work, Saar repositions a Black stereotype—a product of America’s deep-seated history of racism—as an armed warrior. An iconic piece in both Black and feminist art, Black Panther Party for Self-Defense leader Angela Davis said, “This [work] is where Black feminism began.”

Activist Stokely Carmichael first pronounced the rallying cry of “Black Power!” in a speech at the Mississippi March Against Fear in 1966, immediately becoming a motto, a call to arms, and a declaration of the refusal to tolerate racial violence. The next gallery, titled “Black Power,” questions the idea of what it means to be both Black and American. Key pieces in this room include Dana C. Chandler’s Fred Hampton’s Door 2, which highlights the assassination of Chicago Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton by the FBI, as well as Elizabeth Catlett’s mahogany fist Black Unity, an homage to the raised Black Power fist at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. (This piece was also exhibited at Rainbow Sign in Berkeley.)

In this gallery, you’ll also see the work of Emory Douglas, the minister of culture for the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and a Bay Area native. Known for his poster work, Douglas developed a singular, instantly recognizable style through thick black outlining, a strategic use of bold color, and collage elements that tackled the themes of Black solidarity, police brutality, and poverty.

The Organization of Black American Culture was a group of Black artists from the South Side of Chicago who came together in 1967 to support the Black liberation struggle. One of their most significant projects was the Wall of Respect, an outdoor mural on the South Side of the city. Intended to inspire the community by featuring images of Black heroes, the wall served as a gathering place for the community and inspired a wave of murals in other major American cities. The “Black Power” gallery features a slideshow of murals from cities across the United States, including Chicago’s Wall of Respect, and a photograph of artist Bay Area artist Cleveland Bellow posing with his billboard in Oakland.

AfriCOBRA (the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists) formed in Chicago in 1968 and is the focus of the next gallery. Many of the group’s members had been involved in painting the Wall of Respect, and their conversations turned toward whether a uniquely Black art movement could be based on a shared sensibility. An aesthetic style of bold colors and asymmetry is shown in pieces like Revolutionary (Angela Davis) by Wadsworth Jarrell, which celebrates a Bay Area icon of the Black Power movement.

The gallery themed “Black Heroes” is made up of an array of role models throughout the Black community, like Marie Johnson Calloway’s School Crossing Guard, celebrating an everyday hero who ensures that children get to school safely. Another unique addition to the de Young’s presentation of Soul of a Nation is Bay Area artist Phillip Lindsay Mason’s The Hero, which portrays fictional Black superhero wearing a chain around his waist, alluding to the broken chains of slavery or bondage and reclaiming the symbol as his own power. Still another special addition to the presentation is a Mason piece titled Maiden Voyage, which likely depicts Rainbow Sign’s Mary Ann Pollar. In it, Pollar holds a candle as a beacon of hope as she wears a garment with a rainbow hem, alluding to her pioneering community center.

While some artists harnessed the political power of figurative imagery in service of urgent identity politics, others saw abstraction as a means for impactful Black expression. This tension is explored in the second-to-last gallery of Soul of a Nation, in pieces such as William T. Williams’s Hawks Return and Jack Whitten’s Homage to Malcolm.

As Black artists were rarely given the same space and attention as White artists in the 1960s and 1970s, galleries such as Just Above Midtown (JAM) provided a platform for artists who struggled to find exhibition opportunities in mainstream galleries. Established in 1974 by 23-year-old Linda Goode Bryant, JAM demonstrated how art spaces run by Black artists could represent their own people and communities. The final room of the exhibition is dedicated to JAM’s lasting influence, which still reverberates through art communities across the United States. Bryant’s call to action, energy, and community support serves as a lasting legacy of Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963–1983.

Many Bay Area artists and connections appear throughout the de Young’s presentation in Soul of a Nation. These works will be recognized with a seven-pointed star featured on extended object labels. The design, with its rainbow of colors, pays homage to Rainbow Sign.

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