“The ghetto itself is the gallery” (Black Panther Party’s Culture Minister, Emory Douglas).
Using a clever play on words, the nation is America, and this landmark exhibition aims to illuminate the vital, and often overlooked, contribution of Black artists to a dramatic period in its art and history! Soul Of A Nation asks how the concept of Black Art was promoted, contested, debated and oftentimes rejected by artists across the United States. This is a rare opportunity to see era-defining artworks that changed the face of art in America.
150 artworks, most exhibited in the UK for the first time, will showcase more than 50 exceptional American artists from 1963 to 1983. Artists who turned away from seeking reticent mainstream gallery approval, to show their art in grass -roots communities through African-American-owned galleries and artist-curated shows.
This summer, you can experience the perspectives of the Spiral Group, AfriCobra (the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists) and Just Above Midtown gallery (JAM); the black feminist works of Betye Saar and Kay Brown; black photographic aesthetic exploration by the likes of by Roy DeCarava; Faith Ringgold’s American People Series #20: Die (1967) and Wadsworth Jarrell’s Black Prince (1971); Frank Bowling’s Texas Louise (1971) and Sam Gilliam’s April 4 (1969); Constructions by Noah Purifoy, which made use of debris found on the streets in the aftermath of the 1965 Watts Rebellion, plus the distinctive approach to the figure by Charles White and David Hammons. 2015 National Medal of Arts recipient Jack Whitten’s Homage to Malcolm (1970) will be on public display for the very first time!
They provoked, confronted, and confounded expectations in their declarations of African American pride, and their pursuit of autonomy and solidarity, whilst giving America a profound reality check. Inspiration was drawn from newly independent African nations, contemporary politicians, activists, musicians and poets to inspire others with commentary and homages via painted and printed images, photomontages and sculptures. Controversially (in our opinion), Andy Warhol is represented here by his Muhammad Ali (1979) which sold for $9.225m at Christie’s, whilst his friend and collaborator, Haitian-American Jean-Michel Basquiat is not.
But, whilst Warhol’s inclusion may not be defendable, Basquiat’s omission can be forgiven, since this is the year – 18th May, to be exact, that African-American art and artists were suddenly elevated from being not-quite-up-there with Picasso, Bacon and Van Gogh, to surpassing even their then revered auction record-holder, Warhol, whose Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) diptych sold for $105.4m in Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Auction in 2013. Brooklyn-born Basquiat’s 1982 “Untitled” Skull painting, bought for $19, 000 in 1984, fetched $110.5m in auction at Sotheby’s New York!
Basquiat has always inspired intense collectors, and he was a successful living artist, having sold his first painting in 1981 after his SAMO graffiti art period. During his short lifetime, he commanded price tags of up to $25,000. His premature drug-related death at the age of 27 in 1988 robbed the art world of seeing his neo-expressionist genius mature and grow. His primitivistic abstraction and figuration with words, images and colour, focused on “suggestive dichotomies”, which described historical information mixed with contemporary critique – wealth vs poverty; integration vs segregation, and inner vs outer experience. He used major reference texts such as Gray’s Anatomy, Henry Dreyfuss’ Symbol Sourcebook, Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, and Brentjes’ African Rock Art.
The buyer, who dropped another $50+m on the same day, continues the growing empathy between Japanese creatives and African culture, stemming from Japan’s participation in the annual Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) and their focus on developmental aid, rather than investment opportunities, like China. Billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, founder of a Japanese fashion website, placed the winning bid after a 10 minute ‘battle’, and is now hailed as a new force in contemporary art, whilst continuing Basquiat’s posthumous historical importance.
He joins film makers Japanese-American Cary Fukunaga (Beasts of No Nation, 2015), and Takeshi Fukunaga (Out Of My Hand, 2015), highlighting the plight of boy-soldiers and Liberian rubber farmers; Tsuyoshi Ozawa and Masakatsu Takagi, notable artists whose new art work in 2013 was inspired by their encounters and experiences whilst travelling in Ghana and Ethiopia, respectively; and Kawaguchi Yukiya, a leading authority on African contemporary art and how it is produced, represented and consumed both inside and outside of Africa.
Soul Of A Nation will be accompanied by a catalogue from Tate Publishing, and a programme of talks and events in the gallery. The exhibition will then tour to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, and the Brooklyn Museum, New York.
CURATORS: Mark Godfrey and Zoe Whitley, with assistant curator Priyesh Mistry.
DATES: 12th July – 22nd October, 2017
See Basquiat in the 1981 Blondie video Rapture as the club DJ; in the vérité movie Downtown 81 (1981), released in 1998; documentary film, Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child (2009), in Sotheby’s video, Basquiat: Through the Eyes of a Friend (2017), and as portrayed by Jeffrey Wright in the biographical drama Basquiat (1996)..
Soul Of A Nation Featured Artists: Emma Amos, Benny Andrews, Romare Bearden, Cleveland Bellow, Dawoud Bey, Frank Bowling, Kay Brown, Elizabeth Catlett, Dana Chandler, Ed Clark, Adger Cowans, Darryl Cowherd, Roy DeCarava, Jeff Donaldson, Emory Douglas, Louis Draper, Melvin Edwards, Al Fennar, Reginald Gammon, Sam Gilliam, Phillip Lindsay Mason, David Hammons, Barkley Hendricks, Virginia Jaramillo, Jae Jarrell, Wadsworth Jarrell, Barbara Jones-Hogu, Cliff Joseph, Daniel LaRue Johnson, Carolyn Lawrence, Norman Lewis, Tom Lloyd, Alvin Loving, Phillip Lindsay Mason, Archibald Motley, Alice Neel, Senga Nengudi, Lorraine O’Grady, John Outterbridge, Joe Overstreet, Howardena Pindell, Noah Purifoy, Martin Puryear, Herbert Randall, Faith Ringgold, Herb Robinson, Betye Saar, Raymond Saunders, Robert A. Sengstacke, Beuford Smith, Ming Smith, Nelson Stevens, Alma Thomas, Bob Thompson, Andy Warhol, Timothy Washington, Charles White, Jack Whitten, Gerald Williams, Randy Williams, William T. Williams.