... The exhibition’s 12 rooms move between examinations of particular art initiatives (such as Spiral, Room 1); the use and agency of Art on the Streets (Room 2; the specificity of art practices in centres such as Los Angeles, Chicago and New York (Rooms 4, 5, 6 and 12); East Coast Abstraction, Improvisation and Experimentation(Rooms 7 and 10, respectively); the singular practice of an individual artist (Betye Saar, Room 11) and so on. Whilst such categories inevitably lead to an overall unevenness, it’s difficult to imagine many, or any stones having been left unturned, particularly when one adds the substantial audio visual material (extracts from speeches by the likes of Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), Dr Martin Luther King, James Baldwin, et al.; and the display of record sleeves of music related to the era. Such feverish inclusion of everything but the kitchen sink might lead us to conclude, and rightly so, that it will be many a year until these artists, or these investigations, grace the walls of a major London museum.
There is perhaps a certain logic to an exhibition such as Soul of a Nation taking place within the US. It may have been a gargantuan struggle, but the piecemeal representation of individual artists in Soul of a Nation has been supplemented, across the US, by numerous other, often solo exhibitions, allowing audiences to more closely appreciate the individual contributions made by artists. Even Room 7’s look at East Coast Abstraction was more substantially attended to in a show such as Energy/Experimentation: Black Artists and Abstraction 1964–1980 (Studio Museum in Harlem, April 5–2 July 2006). It featured the work of Frank Bowling, Barbara Chase-Riboud, Ed Clark, Melvin Edwards, Fred Eversley, Sam Gilliam, Daniel LaRue Johnson, Tom Lloyd, Al Loving, Joe Overstreet, Howardena Pindell, Haywood Bill Rivers, Alma Thomas, Jack Whitten and William T. Williams. But when such everything-but-the-kitchen-sink exhibitions are presented in London (albeit under the guise of a focussed look at a particular moment) they have the unfortunate potential to diminish, rather than elevate, the breadth of an artist’s individual practice. Contributors to the exhibition become, instead, motifs of a bigger curatorial picture. As much as it’s important to see a dialogue between artists, and between artists and wider social and political elements, it’s simultaneously dispiriting to see work by artists such as Faith Ringgold, Charles White, David Hammons and Barkley L. Hendricks reduced to not much more than gestural inclusions.
Consider this, if you will: there has never (as in, never ever, not once) been a major substantial, stand-alone exhibition in London by any of the most important and prolific African American artists of the mid-twentieth century, such as Charles White, Elizabeth Catlett, Romare Bearden or Jacob Lawrence. Whilst reflecting on that, we might care to add the names of any given artist, or any given number of artists – Faith Ringgold, Sam Gilliam, Betye Saar, etc. What is it that prevents Tate Modern and other such spaces presenting solo exhibitions by Black practitioners whose historical importance, singular contributions and individual artistic dedication is beyond question? Or, put another way, why must Black artists seemingly only ever be represented in fragments, as part of someone else’s grand, catch-all narrative?...
The above extracts are from a review of 'Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power', Tate Modern, 12 July - 22 October 2017, Journal of Visual Art Practice, published online 27 September 2017, at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14702029.2017.1380916. In the summer of 2018 the review was published in the journal itself, Volume 17, Issues 2-3, June - November 2018: 225-227.