soul of a nation and the definition of black art

I have lots of favourite works of art, but today I thought I would talk about a movement that particularly interests me (so much so that I have made it the subject of my dissertation). My third-year dissertation has allowed me to study the social experience and psychology of black masculinity in relation to artwork classified as ‘black art’. What have I discovered? A tension lying within this category’s definition – a tension which has caused me to re-evaluate the structural systems present within the art world and society as a whole.

As part of my research, I visited Tate Modern’s exhibition Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power. Tate Modern contextualises the exhibition on the ‘What’s on at Tate’ section of their website as so: ‘The show opens in 1963 at the height of the Civil Rights movement and its dreams of integration. In its wake emerged more militant calls for Black Power: a rallying cry for African American pride, autonomy and solidarity, drawing inspiration from newly independent African nations.’ I was extremely excited; Soul of a Nation was set to be a politically affirmative show which represented artists that I could relate to and empathise with.

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Barkley L. Hendricks Icon for My Man Superman (Superman Never Saved any Black People – Bobby Seale) 1969

Walking through the exhibition, I encountered both narrative-based and allegorical portrayals of the black experience, as well as photographs documenting African-American life in post-Civil Rights Movement America. However, upon seeing the artwork displayed in room 7, which was entitled ‘East Coast Abstraction’, I was forced to re-evaluate and the bio that I had seen on Tate’s website. Room 7 contained paintings that were nothing like those I had previously viewed at the exhibition. The artwork in this room belonged to abstract expressionists based in New York and Washington D.C., such as Sam Gilliam and William T. Williams. The angular and sonic visuals of William’s Trane were so striking that I couldn’t help but stare – these weren’t the styles of artwork which I had associated with the categorisation of ‘black art’.

Seeing such a variety of works which did not align with my preconceptions of black art made me question – what even constitutes the definition of black art?

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Carolyn Lawrence, Black Children Keep Your Spirits Free, 1972

My assumptions were of politically conscious artwork pertaining to the black experience. The Tate’s designation online reinforces this, defining the black arts movement as inherently ‘ideological’. But, surely this classification fails to capture the variety in skill and message that the art at the Tate presents?

A comparison needs to be made to ‘white art’. If that term doesn’t sit well with you, then good. It shouldn’t, as white art does not exist. There is no ‘white arts movement’ on the Tate website.

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Barkley L. Hendricks, What’s Going On (1974)

This begs the question, why does white art not exist? Simply put, it is because only white artists are allowed to indulge in the luxury of being artists. White artists are not limited to only being recognised if they adhere to the dimensions of their definition, whereas black art has to be politically conscious to be noticed in exhibitions like Soul of a Nation. If art has no definition, then why must black art fall into a predetermined category?

Unfortunately, black artists can’t exist normatively, and they are immediately categorised as subservient. Their art isn’t art, it is black art. They are, essentially, outsiders.

I guess that the point of this article is to make you, the readers, consider the ideological agendas which are hidden by seemingly positive actions. Yes, Soul of a Nation was a fantastic exhibition. Nevertheless, an analysis of the Tate’s message, against the art works on show, is also indicative of the extremely harmful structural hierarchies that the art world must face up to and change.


Words by Keith Muir

Cover image: Carolyn Lawrence, Black Children Keep Your Spirits Free, 1972

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