Soul of a Nation

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, (MFAH) is the final venue to present Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, a landmark exhibition featuring work by more than 60 Black artists. It spans 1960 – 1980, two revolutionary decades in American history, which encompassed the Civil Rights Movement and the emergence of identity politics. Kanitra Fletcher, Assistant Curator, Modern and Contemporary Art, speaks to Aesthetica about this important show.

A: Soul of a Nation has been touring for three years, arriving in Houston at a key moment in terms of Black Lives Matter. How do the artworks resonate today?
Soul of a Nation truly has been a gift for the city of Houston. The exhibition has provided viewers a way to reflect on this moment of social unrest, in ways different from protests and marches and beyond empty rhetoric often expressed in social media posts and political speeches.

Numerous artworks in the exhibition directly refer to the longstanding racial inequities and violence that have plagued our nation, and could have been made today to address our current context. Betye Saar turned the mammy stereotype into a gun-toting revolutionary figure in The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972). Aunt Jemima recently was liberated, as Quaker Oats announced it will finally retire the character. Dana Chandler’s Fred Hampton’s Door 2 (1975) replicates the bullet ridden door following the predawn police raid and killing of Fred Hampton in 1969 Chicago, and similar tactics were used by Louisville police in the killing of Breonna Taylor. The Los Angeles Assemblage section recalls the aftermath of protests similar to the ones that have occurred this summer, and includes artwork made from debris found in the streets after the 1965 Watts Rebellion. Emory Douglas’s illustrations in the Black Panther Party’s newspapers speak strongly and defiantly against police brutality and persistent problem in our country. There are so many works that make this an amazingly timely and necessary exhibition.

A: How does the exhibition, which spans the Civil Rights Movement, demonstrate the integral link between art and activism? 
KF: Soul of a Nation demonstrates how artists are very much a part of our world and engaged with its politics. It shows us multiple ways artists sought to enact various forms of social and political change. Some artists created explicitly political art to educate viewers and celebrate Black American cultural figures and histories. Others used their imagery to assert the humanity of Black people and enhance the beauty of their neighborhoods. And, still others insisted on their personal and artistic freedom to create any type of imagery they desired – and thus defied preconceived notions about the type of art Black people should create at the time. Collectively, and in the context of Soul of a Nation, the artwork demonstrates the potential of art to challenge viewers’ expectations of art by Black people, and beliefs about the world to which it refers.

A: How is the exhibition presented? What is the starting point, and what kind of journey will audiences take?
The exhibition begins in 1963, the year of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Many artists in the exhibition attended the March and subsequently considered how they might respond to the larger context of the Civil Rights Movement. The same year, a group of artists called Spiral came together and met regularly to discuss what was their responsibility, if any, to express their solidarity with the Movement and how they might express themselves as Black people in their artwork. They eventually held an exhibition in 1965 and addressed the moment in various styles and approaches and concluded there was no singular “Black Aesthetic” or way to create art as a Black person. The artwork from this first section of the exhibition brilliantly sets the viewer up for the rest of the show, which presents vastly different approaches that Black artists have had to artmaking within a twenty-year period. Soul of a Nation includes figurative and abstract works, painting and sculpture, prints and photography, political and conceptual art, and more. As you move through the show, the range of work suggests the both the collaborations and the debates among the artists and ultimately the complexity of the history of Black American modern art.

A: One section focuses on the photography of Roy DeCarava and the Kamoinge Workshop. Can you speak about his work and the origins of the group?
Roy DeCarava is one of the most celebrated Black photographers, who was able to support himself as an artist, without needing to take jobs as a studio portraitist or photojournalist. He depicted the people and places of Black neighborhoods in elegant and often abstract manners and became known for the rich dark tones and plays with shadow and light in his images, which was difficult to achieve. DeCarava also became a teacher and mentor to young Black photographers in Harlem and was the first president of the Kamoinge workshop, which formed in 1963. The word Kamoinge comes from the Kenyan Gikuyu languages and means “a group of people acting and working together”. The group, which included Adger Cowans, Ming Smith, Louis Draper, Anthony Barboza and others, met weekly to challenge each other, discuss their work, and support each other by creating exhibition opportunities and publications. Most importantly, they created images of Black people and communities that were honest and reflected their humanity, thereby countering prevailing negative imagery of Black people seen in the mass media. Kamoinge still exists today and a traveling exhibition is on view now at Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

A: What’s new for MFAH’s iteration of Soul of a Nation?
Black Art in Houston includes work largely from the MFAH collection by painter John Biggers and sculptor Carroll Simms, who began the art program at Texas Southern University (TSU), a historically Black university in Houston, as well as two of their students in the 1970s, painter Kermit Oliver and photographer Earlie Hudnall, Jr. With this section, I wanted to emphasize the importance of HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) at times of legal and de facto segregation. These schools were important and often the only ways for young Black artists to get artistic training and develop their practices.

I also wanted to represent work from Houston at the time, because the original exhibition largely focuses on New York and Los Angeles. This is understandable as those were bigger cities and centres of the American art world, but there was plenty of activity happening elsewhere in the country and especially in the South. In many ways, Houston was an arts destination, as young men and women traveled across country to study with Biggers and Simms in a visionary program that required them to master drawing, painting, weaving, ceramics, sculpture and mural painting. In 1957, Biggers also became one of the first Black American artists to go to Africa to research the heritage of African American culture, therefore, in addition to excellence in various mediums, he strove to instill self-pride and self-identity in his students and taught them to reflect on their past and heritage in their artwork.

A: As we transition back to physical exhibitions, how can digital audiences get involved with the programme?
On the exhibition webpage we have several online resources available: a recorded talk that gives an overview of the exhibition; a conversation with Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation; a conversation between the organizing curators Mark Godfrey and Zoe Whitley; and an exhibition walkthrough based on the audio guide. The webpage also includes information on an ongoing series of panel discussions with artists in the exhibition and more. These are discussions on major themes of the exhibition–activism, abstraction, photography, Houston art and organizations—and are broadcast live every Saturday with the recordings available on the webpage afterwards. We also have a film program to complement the exhibition and information is on the webpage as well.

A: What do you hope audiences take away from the show?
I hope visitors recognise what has been missing from American art histories. Historical surveys and texts rarely include the artists in Soul of a Nation – despite how powerfully their work speaks to a critical period in American history. It is ironic how art by Black Americans has long been marginalized for racist reasons that are separate from the actual work, and by critics and historians who want to avoid race and politics in their discussions of art. I hope there will be a true reckoning in the field of art history, as well as other areas of the art world, and we see the further inclusion of Black artists’ work in the histories written and exhibited. Soul of a Nation will be a fantastic resource to aid in those efforts.

Until 30 August. Find out more here.

Lead image: Albert Fennar, Rhythmic Cigarettes, Greenwich Village, New York, 1964, photograph, gelatinsilver print on paper, Miya Fennar and the Estate of Albert R. Fennar. © The Estate ofAlbert R. Fennar.
1. Elizabeth Catlett, Black Unity, 1968, cedar, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, 2014.11. Photography by Edward C. Robison III. © Catlett Mora Family Trust / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.
2. Roy DeCarava, Four Men, New York, 1956, printed 1991, photogravure, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of Joan Morgenstern in honor of Ray Carrington and the students at Yates High School. © Sherry DeCarava, courtesy the DeCarava Archives.
3. Lorraine O’Grady, Art Is… (Girlfriends Times Two), 1983/2009, c print in 40 parts, edition of 8 + 1 AP, courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York. © Lorraine O’Grady / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

Posted on 6 August 2020

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