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Before Black Lives Matter, Black Power’s revolutionary art

Benny Andrews. “Did the Bear Sit Under a Tree?,” 1969. Oil on canvas. (Private Collection/Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC)

BENTONVILLE, Ark. — In July, a month before white racists gathered in Charlottesville for a torchlight parade followed by a violent Unite the Right rally, the Tate Modern in London opened an exhibition called “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power.” It was a resounding success, not just because the subject was newly topical but because it galvanized audiences with its emotional and visual power.

Now the exhibition has come to the United States, first to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art here in Arkansas and later this year to the Brooklyn Museum. Even if the names of the artists and many of their key works are better known here than they were in London, the sense of discovery, or rediscovery, is no less thrilling. The exhibition includes more than 160 works by some 60 artists, covering two decades, beginning with the March on Washington in 1963. These were some of the most tumultuous and tragic years in the history of the nation, with the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, the disastrous escalation of the Vietnam War, race riots that scarred cities across the country, the entrenchment of poverty and inequality along racial lines, the corruption and resignation of Richard Nixon and ultimately a lingering and corrosive sense of despair about American institutions, American character and America’s future.

All of this is registered in myriad ways in the work on view, which is urgent, sometimes confrontational and bitterly ironic. But it is also subtle, passionate, poetic and inflected with humor. The range of materials used, the breadth of ideas adumbrated, the multiplicity of strategies and techniques, the geographical diversity of the artists involved, all of this makes it difficult to contain the art with any single description, except perhaps this: Revolution.

The word was used in its literal sense by artists connected to the Black Panther movement, and by artists who sympathized with the Panthers’ desire to create a new and nurturing black nation apart from the old, systematically racist white one. Liberation is a common theme, from Betye Saar’s now classic assemblage piece “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima” in which a black “mammy” figurine holds a small rifle to Norman Lewis’s abstraction “Processional” which suggests the gathering force and widening purpose of people on the march.

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But it takes a far more capacious sense of revolution to understand the importance of this show. Immediately after a gallery that explores the iconography of the Panthers, one confronts Elizabeth Catlett’s 1968 “Black Unity,” a large, shining cedar sculpture with sides: On one is carved the clenched fist of the classic Black Power salute (famous throughout the world that year after two African American athletes made the gesture during a medal ceremony at the Mexico City Summer Olympics) and on the other a pair of masklike faces gently conjoined in a moment of affection. In a single work we confront revolution not just as resistance and refusal of the old order, but revolution as a process of rethinking identity and relationships. Catlett said of the work: “We ought to stop thinking we have to do the art of other people.”

The placement of Catlett’s sculpture greets the visitor with the clenched fist side first. Not until you walk around to the back (or is it the front?) can the faces be seen. And so it gives a double shock, first to see the power fist so boldly displayed and then to realize that it is integrated into another message, about the friendship, fellowship or intimacy implied by the conjoined faces. Physically, the viewer hasn’t made a full revolution yet. For that, he or she must complete the circle and confront the fist once again, tempered by an understanding of what lies behind it.

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The exhibition is organized around clusters of artists, or art movements or moments of stylistic affinity, arguing in its layout and its diversity for a simultaneity of many ideas and currents rather than a linear or chronological narrative. These moments are sometimes rooted in particular places, like New York City (where galleries such as Just Above Midtown and spaces such as the Studio Museum in Harlem offered exposure to artists excluded from mainstream institutions) or Chicago (where artists of the AfriCOBRA movement sought wide engagement and empowerment with a bold, busy, colorful and populist aesthetic). But sometimes they arose in different places all at once. Saar gets a room of her own, and a gallery of photography focuses on the work of Roy DeCarava. Abstraction, often suspect to more politically motivated artists, is seen in several large galleries, including work by Sam Gilliam and a stunning, wall-sized 1971 painting, “Texas Louise,” by Frank Bowling.

There is a tendency to think of art as epiphenomenal to the “real” world, as a second-order register in which we may occasionally find signs of more important things, like politics and struggle and revolution. But throughout this exhibition, the art refuses to be a footnote to or mere instrument of politics. A self- portrait by Barkley L. Hendricks can’t be reduced to the shock of seeing the artist represent himself fully nude, or the double entendre of its title, “Brilliantly Endowed,” which repurposed words from a condescending review of the artist’s work. Both the painting, and the man depicted, are beautiful, and the work leaves you with the same hard-to-explain but uncanny sense that all great portraits convey: He isn’t going away.

A work by Jae Jarrell, her 1969 “Revolutionary Suit,” offers a moment of clarifying power about revolution and the ways its multiple meanings were taken up by artists of this period. It is a handsome gray wool garment, with what looks to be an ammunition belt crossing over the front. The ammunition belt was an iconic accoutrement of these years, seen in a poster by Faith Ringgold and ubiquitous presence in the imagery of the Panthers. But Jarrell’s ammunition belt is full of crayons or pastels, the tools of art and representation.

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In works like this, the artist claims the right to lead rather than follow the political actors, to assert revolution on new terms. There could be no revolution without images, and much of what scared people about black power was the force of its imagery. Saar was once asked, “Are you for violence?” She said, “No, I don’t really like guns. But if you want to get somebody’s attention, all you have to do is have a gun.” The gun, which appeared in her classic Aunt Jemima piece, was a symbol “of empowerment,” just as guns remain symbols of empowerment among white men who are losing their cultural claim to centrality and leadership.

Black Power terrified white America, just as the Black Lives Matter movement still terrifies many people. It was a truly revolutionary movement that, over time, was torn asunder by police infiltration, divide-and-conquer power tactics and its own internal divisions. Black Lives Matter is more inclusive and open to alliances across the racial divide, which will impact the art that emerges from it. Protesters have a ready-made communications network infinitely more powerful than that which connected people during the age of Black Power, making the words of Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” sound both dated and paradoxically prophetic: “There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down/ Brothers in the instant replay.” And so the art that comes from Black Lives Matter will look and circulate in fundamentally different ways because of that network.

But the emergence of Black Lives Matter proved that the work of Black Power a half-century earlier was unfinished, that fantasies of a post-racial America were both premature and sadly short-lived. This exhibition demonstrates again and again the persistence of the problem, the persistence of the pain and destruction it causes, and the persistence of the persisters, which is the most powerful message in the end. Perhaps someday America will have its revolution proper; leveling inequalities; opening up access and opportunity to all; replacing authoritarian and racist cops with true civil servants; and eradicating the materialism and greed that animates every aspect of our politics. Even after that day, if it ever comes, this work will remain, and we will look to it to understand who we are.

Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power is on view at Crystal Bridges Museum of Art in Bentonville, Ark., through April 23. For more information visit