THE LIGHTS are dim, and there is no sound. It’s as if everyone gathered in the gallery has taken a collective gulp of air and is holding it. Quietly, we cast our eyes around the exhibition’s first room, pupils landing first on Norman Lewis’ immense black-and-white-saturated canvases, then on Romare Bearden’s black-and-white collages, then on Reginald Gammon’s high-contrast black-and-white acrylic piece.
It’s curator Zoe Whitfield of London’s Tate Modern, the exhibition’s organizing institution, who breaks the silence. What did it mean, she asks us, rhetorically, to be a black artist working during this period, from 1963—the first breath of the civil rights movement—to 1983? Was your responsibility to the self, or to the community? To the movement? Who are you making art for?
Turns out there was nothing black and white about it—and that, she says, is precisely the point of the exhibition. The 64 artists whose work, some 164 pieces strong, hangs in this space grappled with those questions, arguing, challenging and empowering one another over the course of decades, some of the most charged decades in our country’s history.
They asked those questions, sure. But they gave no single answer because there is no single answer.
That’s the central tenet of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art’s iteration of Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, slimmed down from its first run at Tate. Here in Bentonville, the work’s been organized by Zoe and Crystal Bridges’ contemporary curator, Lauren Haynes, into 12 rooms that divide the work by geography, theme, collective of artists or the precious few galleries that gave them a platform. The rooms, mostly small and intimate, are like conversations, and wandering from one to the next is like stumbling upon creatives engaged in discussion. There’s a temporal element to the flow of the exhibition—it begins in 1963 New York with the Spiral Group artists, and ends in 1983 New York with the Just Above Midtown Gallery—but it seems almost secondary. Instead of relying on chronology, Zoe explains, they let the artists’ conversations guide the curation.
“There’s an ongoing conversation both in the rooms and between them,” she says, standing near Elizabeth Catlett’s Black Unity, its clenched fist rendered in cedar. “And that curatorial process was led by the artists. We wanted to understand their motivations in their own words.”
As she says this, a man makes his way from the rear of the room, and Zoe, beaming, identifies him as artist Dana Chandler Jr., whose work—Fred Hampton’s Door #2, a protest piece that replicates the bullet-riddled door that stood between the Black Panther activist and the police who killed him—is there in front of us. He nods as he looks it over, silently, then moves to Benny Andrews’ Did the Bear Sit Under a Tree and to Faith Ringgold’s American People Series #20: Die.
“It’s really meaningful to see these works together. To see that juxtaposed with that juxtaposed with that,” he says gesturing to each piece. He goes on to say that he spent time with all of these people—he frequented Benny’s studio, knew Faith, idolized Elizabeth. “We fought as artists about what was relevant and not relevant. I remember saying to [fellow artist] Sam Gilliam, What the hell does this sh*t have to do with anything? And he said to me, What the hell does YOUR sh*t have to do with anything? Years later, I told him I didn’t have the right to tell him about his work. He smiled. That was enough.”
As we continue through the exhibition, pausing to take in Betye Saar’s The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, lingering in the room dedicated to Roy DeCarava’s black-and-white photographs, it’s clear that these conversations and these questions—what was and wasn’t relevant, and whether that mattered—played out constantly and consistently between these artists and was reflected back into the canon of work they produced. “That question—you’d never want to collapse that down,” Zoe says as we make our way into the East Coast Abstraction room, awash in ethereal, DayGlo canvases.
“It’s not a question of either/or,” she continues. “It’s both/and.”
And that wholeness is palpable throughout Zoe’s and Lauren’s curation. It’s in the starkness of that first black-and-white room juxtaposed with the Kool-Aid colors of the AfriCOBRA artists’ pieces. It’s in the bleakness of a work like Norman Lewis’ America the Beautiful, and in the hopefulness of Alma Thomas’ Mars Dust, one of her so-called “happy paintings.” It’s in the way that Jack Whitten’s textural Asa’s Palace refers us back to the Romare Bearden collage in the exhibition’s first room. And it’s certainly in the exhibition’s final room, which celebrates the Just Above Midtown gallery, opened in 1974 by a then-23-year-old Linda Goode Bryant, a woman who, frustrated by black artists’ lack of representation in the art world, said, “F*ck them, let’s start a gallery!” And did.
But the “wholeness” of the experience takes on a new meaning when, as we’re standing in the room devoted to her gallery, Linda Goode Bryant herself walks in through the exhibition’s exit door. She’s accompanied by several other Soul of a Nation artists, all anxious to take in the show for themselves, to see their work hung alongside the others’ that both challenged and nurtured it—but first, we’re told, they’ll take questions. Holding our breath once again, blindsided by our good fortune to find ourselves surrounded not only by this art but by the artists who made it, we follow them to a pair of long wooden benches in the East Coast Abstraction room.
In the moments that follow, the echoes of the discourse surrounding that question—that What is black art? question—which have been pinging around the exhibition hall, bouncing from room to room, merge into something much larger. Before our eyes, the themes and ideas that Zoe and Lauren so carefully curated coalesce and become real, because the artists, sitting amid the work they created so many decades ago, aren’t done discussing and agreeing and disagreeing. Fifty, 60 years later, talking around and over one another—saying things like “Will you stop interrupting me while I’m interrupting you?”—they’re still challenging their colleagues over what it means to make art, to sell art, to express the innermost self, to “do what’s best as an artist and also as a concerned human being.” But if there’s one thing they agree on, it’s this: that the connections they have made and maintained are the keys to it all.
Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power is on view at Crystal Bridges until April 23. Special tours are offered at 1 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. For more information on the exhibition and related events, visit crystalbridges.org.