Unfurling Truth in Art at Soul of a Nation
The Broad, Los Angeles
through September 1st
By Sydney Walters
This exhibit at The Broad Art Museum charges off the starting block in 1963 at the time of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. Birthed out these turbulent and violent times, “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983” is a comprehensive survey of black artists grappling with political changes and frustrating stalemates that distill into communal and individual pride and identity.
The American flag, a symbol of pride and freedom for many, is handled distinctively different in Faith Ringgold’s The Flag is Bleeding. Three figures, a black man, a white woman and a white man are painted behind the stars and stripes of the flag. The red stripes ooze paint from each red horizontal line. The black man holds a knife in his left hand and with his right, plugs a stab wound on his shoulder. The figures placidly smile while looking directly at the viewer. Ringgold highlights the discrepancy of consciousness of black and white America. All is well for the white folks. But while holding the same calm gaze as his comrades, the black man is violated by the racist history of America which forces him to live defensively holding a knife while nursing a wound.
In line with artists like Ringgold whose work is in direct dialogue with American history, Dana C. Chandler paints on a bullet holed green and red door. A “US Approved” insignia is on the top right corner. A painted name plaque reads: Fred Hampton, Chairman Black Panther Party. In 1969, Chicago police shot through a door and murdered the young Black Panther leader. Hampton’s door was cast into evidence to prove the Panthers shot first. Seeing that Hampton was sleeping at the time of the break in, the “evidence” was proved false. Chandler’s painting is a relic of corrupt justice and stands like a tombstone honoring the death of a brave young leader.
Wadsworth Jarrell, one of Chicago’s AfriCOBRA (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists) has several psychedelic paintings included in the exhibit. Infused with the Kool Aid colors of double dark cherry red, blue raspberry blue and lime green, Jarrell paints Black Prince, a portrait of Malcolm X transcribing parts of his May 1963 speech under the face and the repeating “B” letter standing for “Black, bad and beautiful” cropping up around the figure. The colors are dizzying and appear to vibrate as each saturated color begs attention.
Ed Clark is one of the artists featured in the Abstract Expressionist section of this exhibit. His oval Yenom (#9) is a blurred horizon with sap green fading into a sandy mid-ground before entering a turquoise blue foreground. For artists like Clark and Sam Gilliam, color field and abstract paintings encourage meditative response to their use of color and line. Devoid of figures, these artists rely on the technicality of the painting to deliver messages. They are love songs to how the brush moves, how paint dances across canvas and how material transforms expectations.
Striking black portraits from artists such as Emma Amos, Raymond Saunders and Berkley Hendricks are just around the corner. Hendricks in particular creates uncommon color pallets for his portraits. In What’s Going On, he paints five black figures, four men and one woman. He chooses quite uncommon colors for the figure/background relationship. The men wear white suits and hats and are painted against a white background. The woman’s naked body and the men’s hands and faces are the only contrasting element on this piece. The viewer’s eye bounces from flesh piece to flesh having with the sumptuousness of the skin carrying much more visual interest than the stark whiteness.
This way of seeing What’s Going On is what makes Soul of a Nation so extraordinary. Contrary to the cannon of art history, depicting whiteness and being white is not, in fact, what is always interesting or important. In fact it is the distinct pockets of black identity, the faces, hands and bodies that charge this exhibit with exuberant power and does nothing short but enrich the dialog of art histo-ry.