By Janice Bressler
“Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” is a new groundbreaking exhibition at the de Young Museum. It has just opened but is already stirring up widespread excitement.
“These works are so powerful on so many levels,” said visitor to the museum Marie Scott, a longtime Richmond District resident. “I wish that everyone in this city would come to see it.”
The exhibition, which is drawing big crowds of locals as well as people from all over the state and beyond, brings to San Francisco a broad spectrum of era-defining artworks produced by Black artists between 1963 and 1983, a period of turbulent social and political upheaval in this country.
The show comes to San Francisco after a run in Los Angeles, as well as several other major American cities. It was originally created by the Tate Modern Museum in London, where it garnered international acclaim for showcasing the work of more than 60 Black American artists, many of whom had gone largely unrecognized by major galleries and art institutions for decades.
“The artists featured in ‘Soul of a Nation’ were on the front lines of creating social and political change,” said director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF), Thomas P. Campbell. “Their work changed the course of the art historical canon, and with this exhibition we continue to tell a truer, more holistic story of what American art is.”
To tell that story, the exhibition includes more than 150 different artworks in a wide range of mediums – painting, photographs, sculptures, posters, even clothing. The styles of the featured artists also cover a vast range. By zooming out and taking a broad view of this sprawling body of work, the exhibition gives viewers a panoramic sense of the period and a feeling for the times in which the works were created.
Professor Sharon Lynette Jones saw the exhibit recently while in town for a conference from her post at Ohio’s Wright State University. She was struck by the way that, for her, many of the pieces link past struggles for social justice to those of the present. Jones, who has just finished work on a book about famed Black activist and scholar Angela Davis, said she was particularly moved by a huge kaleidoscopic portrait of Davis by painter Wadworth Jarrell. Titled Revolutionary, the powerful painting is done in eye-popping Day-Glo colors and seems to vibrate with energy.
“Although I have seen reproductions of Jarrell’s Revolutionary, and used it in lectures, this is the first time I had actually seen the work in an exhibition,” said Jones. She added that the iconic painting of Davis “reinforces the importance of power, agency, urgency and resistance,” ideas as crucial today, she said, as they have ever been.
Jones was not alone in being moved by the show’s spirit of resistance to injustice. A young woman, who asked to be identified only as Ruby, said that she is a student at San Francisco City College. Ruby stood silently for several minutes in front of the installation by David Hammons called “The Door: Admissions Office.”
The piece is an actual wooden door with a large glass pane bearing the words “Admissions Office,” but the glass bears the black imprint of the artist’s hands and body, as though he had smashed up against it in an effort to get through a door that had been slammed in his face.
“Looking at that, it makes me think about all the admissions scandals in the news lately, about people buying their way into college because they’ve got money,” Ruby said.
In addition to The Door, Hammons, a Los Angeles artist, used body prints in other featured pieces, such as Boy with Flag, to powerful effect. Hammons’ work is featured in the third gallery of the de Young show, along with two other Los Angeles artists – painter and muralist Charles White and mixed-media assemblage artist Timothy Washington. The densely packed Soul of a Nation exhibition is organized into 10 different galleries according to different themes, movements and collectives. Many of the artists in the show gathered into collectives because of the refusal of the mainstream art world to support their work.
Bay Area native Emory Douglas, a featured artist, studied graphic design at San Francisco State University before becoming minister of culture for the Black Panther Party in Oakland. Douglas urged artists to make their works widely available, to bring their works to the streets. His bold brightly colored lithographs, which appeared regularly in the Black Panther newspaper published in Oakland, are featured in Gallery 5, titled “Black Power, Art in the Streets.”
Douglas’s words are posted above his prints in that gallery: “The ghetto itself is the gallery for the revolutionary artist’s drawings. By taking it out of the museum and putting it in the street with the people, the revolutionary artist educates the people as they go through their daily routine.”
The original Soul of a Nation show mounted by London’s Tate Museum included many West Coast artists from both Los Angeles and the Bay Area, but the de Young has made a special effort to include additional Bay Area artists and works.
Co-organizer for the de Young’s Soul of a Nation, and FAMSF assistant curator of American Art, Lauren Palmor said “When we learned that we would be able to mount a San Francisco presentation of this significant exhibition, we knew we wanted to incorporate additional Bay Area stories and artists … Works with Bay Area connections feature a [rainbow-hued] icon on their object labels.”
That rainbow-colored design, explained Palmor “pays homage to Rainbow Sign … a historic cultural center in Berkeley [in the 1970s] that served Black audiences. Works in the show, such as Betye Saar’s The Liberation of Aunt Jemima and Elizabeth Catlett’s mahogany fist Black Unity were exhibited at Rainbow Sign. In addition, works like Mike Henderson’s Non Violence and Phillip Lindsay Mason’s The Hero are new additions unique to the de Young’s presentation.”
Allusions to and images of music run throughout the wide-ranging exhibition, from a huge abstract painting called Hawk’s Return, inspired by the jazz of saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, to the elegant group portrait by painter Barkley L. Hendricks that takes its title from by Marvin Gaye’s classic song, What’s Going On. So, it was fitting that the museum celebrated opening day of Soul of a Nation by filling the museum’s central court with live music and dance, including performances by the rising Oakland hip hop group, Sol Development and popular street dance troupe, Groovemekanx.
The de Young offered free admission to the whole museum on Saturday, Nov. 9, including to the special exhibition, and the event attracted a lively and diverse crowd. Said one gray-haired visitor as she got out of her seat to join the dancefloor for an audience participation number, “There is such a good, connected feeling here today. And we all so need to be connected just now.”
M.C.s for the event were Melonie and Melorra Green, co-directors of the African American Art and Culture Complex, and radio hosts of “the Ibeji Lounge” show on KPOO, 89.5 FM. Engineers from KPOO, an entirely listener-supported, commercial-free public radio station and a Bay Area institution since the early 1970s, were at the block party and produced a live broadcast of the entire daylong celebration.
Soul of a Nation will run through March 15, 2020. The de Young is offering free admission to this special exhibition, as well as the rest of the museum, for all visitors on three upcoming Saturdays: Dec. 14, Jan. 11, and Feb. 8. For more information, visit deyoung.famsf.org.