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Art for equality

Power of civil rights movement depicted in Crystal Bridges exhibition

Barkley L. Hendricks, “What’s Goin On,” 1974, oil, acrylic, and magna on cotton canvas, 65 3/4 x 83 3/4”

Estate of Barkley L. Hendricks, Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Frances Morris, director of the Tate Modern, says the “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” exhibition at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art depicts “the fierce beauty of the art of Black America from 1963 to 1982.”

Featured artist Dana C. Chandler Jr. calls it “one of the most important shows, at least in my mind, of this century.”

The exhibition, which opened Feb. 3 in Bentonville, Ark., features the work of 60 artists and includes 164 paintings, photographs, sculptures, and murals created during the height of the civil rights movement.

The Tate-curated collection, making its American debut, will be shown only at Crystal Bridges and at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. Some of its works reflect the political events and cultural influences of the time, while others focus more on the creative process itself.

“The artists in ‘Soul of a Nation’ were asking the most fundamental questions about their role,” Morris wrote in the introduction to the book of the same name, created in conjunction with the exhibition. “Should a work of art communicate a direct political message? Could it be abstract? Where should it be shown and what audience should be addressed?”

Chandler was among more than a dozen of the artists who attended the Feb. 2 preview and spoke during an opening-day symposium. Also speaking were London co-organizers Zoe Whitley and Mark Godfrey, both curators of international art at Tate Modern.

Lorraine O’Grady’s photographic collection of her performance art during a 1983 Harlem African-American Day Parade is the final installment in the exhibition, which runs through April 23. O’Grady, speaking during opening weekend, said she came to art later in life after studying economics at Wellesley and working for the federal government. She said she soon found that “the art world was a full and complete political arena to work in and against.”

Just how and how much their work should reflect the political and social climate of the day was debated in 1963 by 15 artists who called themselves, collectively, Spiral, Whitely explained. Meeting in the New York studio of Romare Bearden, they considered whether or not there was or should be “a Negro image.”

“They gave no single answer,” Whitely said, but in 1965 they did open a joint black-and-white exhibition.  Collages by Bearden and other works from the 1965 show introduce the exhibition at Crystal Bridges.

By the late 1960s, members of a group called AfriCOBRA were feeling a greater sense of urgency about a black art movement. Founding members included “Soul of a Nation” artists Jae and Wadsworth Jarrell, who attended the preview.

Wadsworth said he’d known African-American art from those decades eventually would be celebrated, but he “didn’t know [he] would still be living.” In its guiding principles, the group called for art that “shined” with the “Kool-Aid” colors of orange, strawberry, cherry, lemon, lime, and grape. Such a palette does shine in the AfriCOBRA portion of the exhibition, with paintings and screen prints by Carolyn Lawrence, Nelson Stevens, Gerald Williams and Wadsworth Jarrell.    

Such collectives are an important theme of the exhibition, and the artists who came to Bentonville acknowledged their longtime friendships and how they influenced and supported one another.

Artist and gallery founder Linda Goode Bryant said she and photographer Adger W. Cowans are both from Ohio, and he was “the first person I ever had a crush on. I was 8.”

Cowans, who started shooting when he was 15, said he attended Ohio University because Arizona State didn’t admit black students in 1958. He also said photography was generally difficult to get accepted then—for people of
any color.

“The first gallery I showed in was the first gallery in New York City to show photography,” he said. “It hasn’t been around that long as an art.”

Randy Williams, whose piece in the exhibition is called “Color in Art,” said he owes much to his collaboration with Bryant, who in 1974 opened the Just Above Midtown gallery in NYC.

“This is a powerful show that reveals the vastly different ways artists respond to the world around them,” said Lauren Haynes, curator of contemporary art at Crystal Bridges. She said she hopes visitors will leave “understanding that there is no one way to be a black artist.”

Many of the pioneer artists featured in the exhibition continue to work and teach.

“Right now my biggest problem is how to do everything at once, to continue to make the work,” O’Grady said. “I’m not living in the past.”