Brief History on Systematic Racism within Art Institutions: Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983 Exhibition at de Young
From left to right: “Early Works #25: Self-portrait” by Faith Ringgold, “Carousel Change” by Sam Gilliam, “Blood (Donald Formey)” by Barkley Hendricks, “Unite” by Barbara Jones-Hogu, “Fred Hampton’s Door 2” by Dana C. Chandler, and “Non-Violence” by Mike Henderson as part of “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963- 1983” at the de Young Museum. Aubrey Davis/ aubrey-annedavis.com)
Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power is an internationally acclaimed exhibition organized by the Tate Modern of London that celebrates the work of Black American artists in the two pivotal decades following 1963. During this period the Civil Rights movement was sparking conversations about race and identity, highlighting national politics, and social constructs. This exhibition features over 60 African American artists from 1963-1983 who articulated their calls for black power through artwork promoting cultural pride, collective solidarity and empowerment all while addressing profound questions such as, what is ‘Black Art?,” where it should be exhibited, and the choice of addressing the black community or an universal audience. Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, was exhibited at the de Young Museum from November 9, 2019 through March 15, 2020 with a focus on artists honoring the legacy of Black Power in the San Francisco Bay Area including musicians, activists, civic leaders and special guest speakers committed to bringing Black Power to the forefront.
The importance of this exhibition is significant for it can be seen as a response to the exhibitionary discipline of a historicized framework that was established in early-nineteenth century museums, as discussed in Tony Bennett’s, The Exhibitionary Complex, which aimed to “depict the development of people, states, and civilizations through time conceived as a progressive series of developmental stages.”( Bennett. 89) These developments on display, however, were dictated by museums that became fundamental instruments of the nation state in educating the public from the point of view of the capital. This point of view was in the context of late-nineteenth century imperialist’s employment of anthropology and was responsible for the separation of the histories of Western nations and civilizations of “other” people that lead to new forms of classification and display ordered by race. This order dropped ‘primitive people’ from history into a “twilight zone between nature and culture.” (Bennett. 90) This separation evident in exhibitions such as that of Saartjie Baartman, the ‘Hottentot Venus” whose large buttock invited a flurry of scientific speculation citing it as proof of the claim that black people were indeed a separate, more primitive line of decent or the Centennial Exhibition at Philadelphia in 1876 which zoned pavilions into racial groups that denied black people and aboriginal populations any space of their own and “represented as subordinate adjuncts to the imperial displays of the major powers.” (Bennett. 95) This overview of the colonial power structure put in place within the exhibitionary complex is crucial in understanding Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power as a response to overturn an imperialized historical framework in offering a more equitable space for Black art and to provide the public with an accurate representation of the historical obstacles of artists within the black community.
Shown on the lower level in the Herbst Special Exhibition Galleries at de Young museum, the exhibition was divided into nine sections grouped by the art movement the artist was associated with, addressing important sub-topics such as the rise of the Black Power movement and the social impact of the Watts Rebellion in Los Angeles in 1965.
Some sections of the exhibition served to highlight members of the black community, such as section six: Black Heroes, which displayed nearly a dozen Black portraits by Black artists. Using a combination of historical, formal, social justice and ethnic identity conceptual frameworks the viewer is lead through the gallery chronologically at first, by work influenced directly by historically significant events that took place in America during the 1960s and 70s in the Black community.
The gallery was brightly lit, work that was hung was well spaced apart, and if possible had a wall of its own. Sculptural work was exhibited center of the section it occupied. The museum provided an introductory statement at the beginning of each section elaborating on its theme, most pertaining to social justice and ethnic identity. The artwork’s information plaque expanded further on the historical and formal context of the piece. Occasionally there were quotes inscribed high above the art on the gallery’s walls by reputable institutions associated with the Black Rights movement like The Organization of Black American Culture, 1967, or of the Artist themselves, “ I feel it my moral obligation as a Black artist to try to graphically document what I feel.” A quote from David Hammons in 1992 reads above his piece, The Door (Admissions Office) 1969, providing points to ponder in a historical context of the work on display.
Section Eight: Abstraction, was particularly appealing to me for I am drawn to the emotional gestural strokes of Abstract Expressionism. I was pleased to see one of second generation Abstract Expressionist, Ed Clark’s irregularly shaped canvas pieces as he was one of the first to experiment with this style in 1957. Yenom (#9) was painted in 1970 on his studio floor where he swept acrylic paint in blue and green hues across the surface of the canvas with a household broom. A beautiful symphony of complementary colors emerge providing a serene and tranquil viewing experience. On the adjacent wall hung Peumbra (1970), one of Frank Bowling’s Map Paintings, defined as large works with acrylic and spray paint that involve pouring, washing and spraying pigments on to canvases. After becoming interested in global impact of the African Diaspora and the Middle Passage of the trans- Atlantic slave trade, Bowling sought to “deconstruct a colonialist gaze that privileges Europe and North America and relegates colonized continents, countries and cultures to the shadows,” (deYoung) through his work. This, supporting the idea that the Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power exhibition can also be interpreted as a response to the imperialized historical framework of the Exhibitionary Complex in finally giving a civilization of ‘other’ people to display a history of their own. This large rectangular piece reminiscent of a galaxy, is set on a backdrop of dark blue and black hues with large areas washed of teal, pink and orange acrylic paint along the canvas’ perimeter edge. A powerful piece that encompasses the viewer when standing center.
Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power is not only a poignant display of art used to spark, or rather, continue the conversations pertaining to race and identity within the Black Community but also a stand against the imperialized historical framework deployed within the exhibitionary complex. A chance at representation within institutions that for so long have denied them museological display of their own history. I see it as an attempt of rebranding the art institution with an opportunity to deploy exhibitionary disciplines such as the principle of spectacle, as Foucault describes it, “of rendering a small number of objects accessible to the inspection of a multitude of men.” (Bennett. 98) Its time a for rendering of a large number of objects from unrepresented civilizations be accessible to the inspection of a multitude of men. This exhibition is only a snapshot of the history that is still absent from museums on a permanent basis.
Right now, there is an open letter circulating directed towards New York City's culture institutions demanding, "the dismantling of the systemic oppression that the aforementioned institutions readily participate in while demanding the back-breaking work product of Black/Brown employees." This letter focuses on the racism and mistreatment of employees of color within cultural institutions starting with New York facilities. Visit #fortheculture to read the open letter and sign your name as an ally.