The clap of a hand, the clench of a fist. The blare of a horn, the power of a vote. The stroke of a brush. These all stir the soul at the Broad’s presentation of Soul of A Nation. While there's much to soak in and experience with the show, “Soul of A Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983,” it is this pulse, this vibrant, jazzy, funky, socially conscious pulse that you see and feel throughout the show.
It is the pulse of black consciousness as the assassinations of JFK, MLK, RFK and Malcolm occurred, while ascendant voices from the Black Panthers to Nelson Mandela were taking root. It’s the pulse of nodding one’s head in the affirmative from James Brown’s “Soul Power” to Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message.” It is the pulse in the veins that happens when you start to taste liberation and empowerment after 400 years of slavery, Jim Crow, lynchings and marches. It is the pulse of major cities — like Los Angeles — that transformed rapidly right before our eyes socially, politically and culturally.
With works by over 60 artists, there is a full range of styles and mediums on display from figurative and abstract collage, assemblage and photography to painting, sculpture and performance. Developed and organized by Tate Modern in London in 2017, it made two other stops in Arkansas and Brooklyn, before its final (and only West Coast) stop at the Broad.
Presenting the work of black artists made over two decades beginning in 1963, the exhibition has individual galleries of artists working in particular cities, with three galleries dedicated to artists living and working in Los Angeles. Without the dreaded, oft-used “black art” filter, the works stand on their own in terms of vision, technique, expansion of the mind and general disruptiveness, and should be observed as such. But, writing as a black man from the South, I will concede that it is all made richer with the context of certain historical touchstones.
The exhibition showcases communities engaged in robust artistic dialogues, while also revealing disagreements about what it meant to be a black artist during this time. Collectives like New York’s Spiral and Chicago’s AfriCOBRA and spaces like Linda Goode Bryant’s JAM (Just Above Midtown) or Leimert Park’s Brockman Gallery were pushing boundaries and each other. We see a conversation of discourse and support going on in a time long before artists could share each other’s work on social media. A Polaroid of a mural, say, might eventually find its way to the studio of an artist working with junk and artifacts, whose best friend is a poet whose words ended up in a painting by another artist, and so on.
One gallery, an especially vibrant room, is a beautiful, energy-filled space brimming with depictions of black life and black icons in brilliant, groovy '70s technicolor. Works by Wadsworth Jarrell (Revolutionary), Carolyn Lawrence (Black Children Keep Your Spirits Free), Nelson Stevens, and Jeff Donaldson had electricity and flavor while being super socially conscious. That kind of work spilled over into mural projects like ‘Wall of Respect’ in Chicago (in which Jarrell was involved) that sparked a nationwide mural movement, also documented here.
These abstract works prove art by black people doesn’t have to show black people, but can still be about black people. Such is the case for the minimalist installation of chains and barbed wire by Melvin Edwards, Curtain (for William and Peter), which is one of the most powerful visual poems summing up the black experience in America. There’s also strong black nationalist works by Faith Ringgold, Emory Douglas and Dana Chandler and poignant photography from Roy DeCarava.
As for L.A., we see the local aspect of the dialogue via three rooms featuring artists who were experimenting and forging new paths as black Los Angeles was still reeling from the Watts Riots in 1965, while getting energized about electing Tom Bradley as mayor in 1969 and 1973. One is a room of assemblage-style art made widely known by artists like Betye Saar, John Outterbridge, Noah Purifoy and John Riddle — a mentee of Purifoy, who was not in the original Tate exhibition but added for the Los Angeles iteration.
There’s a reiteration of the impressive “Three Graphic Artists” show in 1971 at LACMA, featuring Charles White, David Hammons and Timothy Washington, which Sarah Loyer, associate curator and exhibitions manager at The Broad, points out as a show that came amid the prodding of an activist effort by the museum’s Black Artists Council. When approached about it, Charles White doubled down on the commitment to showcasing more artists by saying, “I’ll show as long as you show younger artists,” according to Loyer.
The third L.A.-specific room is a recreation of Saar’s 1973 survey show at Cal State, replete with details that the artist oversaw herself at The Broad, from the painted texture of the walls to the placement of her Rainbow Mojo piece near the ceiling.
There are also several real nuggets in this show not seen in any other version of Soul of A Nation. “The Door (Admissions Office)” work by Hammons, on loan from CAAM, is one example and its message is absurdly relevant given current college admissions scandals. Another is Purifoy’s Watts Riot, shown at Tate Modern but no other venue in the U.S., an installation using charred wood and other street-found material to both document and evocatively recreate the aftermath of the destruction in the city. A unique sonic experience was crafted solely for L.A. via a music playlist curated by none other than Quincy Jones, downloadable on Apple Music and the museum’s website. To take a trip through the show as you listen to Mahalia Jackson, The Last Poets, Sly & the Family Stone or Alice Coltrane, is a beautiful form of transportation. (Though on a personal note, I wished “One Nation Under A Groove” by Parliament Funkadelic and early '80s hip-hop had been tagged for the journey, too.)
“This is a very important exhibition for Los Angeles now, as it gives a taste of the culture that generations can experience. Many of the themes, the joy and pain, are instructive to what’s happening today,“ says L.A.-based artist Michael Massenburg, also a member of BAILA (Black Artists in Los Angeles). And he’s right; those pulses continue to throb.
Upcoming Event on Sat., April 27: “Exhibiting Black Art in Los Angeles in the 1970s” discussion with Dale Brockman Davis, Suzanne Jackson and Ian White; 2 p.m. Tickets include exhibition passes.
The Broad also will offer a series of free gallery talks on Thursday nights, beginning May 2 at 7 p.m. Free with exhibition tickets.
The Broad, 221 S. Grand Ave., downtown; (213) 232-6250; thebroad.org; Tue.-Wed., 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Thu.-Fri., 11 a.m.-8 p.m., Sat., 10 a.m.-8 p.m., Sun., 10 a.m.-6 p.m., thru Sept. 1; $18. thebroad.org/soul-of-a-nation.