Bonnie Greer on black art: “we set out to discover what defined us”

Published 30 June 2017

Ahead of a Tate survey of Black art in America, Bonnie Greer tracks the emergence of a generation that defined itself on its own terms.

  • From the Summer 2017 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Black Lives Matter is nothing new.

    My generation of black writers, dancers, actors, singers and artists, who came of age in the late 1960s to mid 80s, created it and lived it.

    1963 is the year when Tate Modern’s new exhibition, Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power begins.

    That year was pivotal for us. It was the summer that saw the March on Washington and Dr Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It was in the autumn that the assassination of John F. Kennedy, President of the United States, was broadcast live on lunchtime TV.

    My generation of African American young people saw our parents and older brothers and sisters spat at; beaten by police; chased by dogs; locked in jails; missing. Killed. All because they wanted to exercise their civil rights.

    But by 1963, we younger people saw that non-violence simply did not work. Petitioning did not work. Singing gospel hymns and dressing up in our Sunday best to have rocks thrown at us by mums with babies in their arms did not work.

    I suppose that the difference between my generation and BLM is that we didn’t really care if black lives mattered or not. The question for us was: matter to whom? Because black lives certainly mattered to us, and that’s what was important. So we set out to discover how we saw things; what defined us.

    There had been others before: the majestic African American painter, collagist and cartoonist Romare Bearden, who is represented in the Tate show by several pieces from 1964: collages made from images found in magazines, depicting aspects of African American life: a spiritual “conjur woman”; a Harlem street scene; a baptism. Like all the work in the exhibition, his is suffused with a kind of “Otherness”. This Otherness is what I call “The African Continuum”. And I think that this is the font of so much abstraction – a hallmark of the art of the era. The African Continuum, among other things, is a way of seeing, of being.

  • Frank Bowling, Texas Louise

    Frank Bowling, Texas Louise, 1971.

    Acrylic on canvas. 2820 x 6650 mm. Courtesy of the Rennie Collection, Vancouver. © Frank Bowling.

  • Soul of a Nation includes work which has gained recognition at the highest establishment levels: like that of the British Guyanese abstract painter, Frank Bowling RA. It also includes art “straight from the hood” like The Wall Of Respect, a group mural depicting black heroes. I remember the Wall from living where and when it existed: the Chicago of the late 60s. My hometown.

    It is important to understand that, in a way, back then, we were out to break things. The art could come out of or be the breaking. For example, Dana Chandler’s Fred Hampton’s Door 2 (1975), a replica of a bullet-ridden, bloodstained door, is not just about a door. Fred was someone I knew – a few months older than me – and he was also the Leader of the Chicago Black Panther Party. He was assassinated in his sleep in the presence of his partner. She was a few weeks away from giving birth. The Chicago Police Department did the breaking. They broke down Fred’s door. What happened behind Fred Hampton’s door defined many of us.

    There was New York City, a gritty, broken, teeming place full of life. The lino print Malcolm X Speaks For Us (1969) by Elizabeth Catlett, graphic artist and sculptor, is full not only of New York, but of what we all felt after Malcolm X’s assassination in 1965. It shows a repeated pattern of African American women’s faces, alongside a single image of Malcolm X.

    Darryl Cowherd’s portrait Amiri Baraka (1967), a fragment from The Wall Of Respect, captures the great playwright/poet/activist and Apostle of Blackness in full flight.

    Black Power. And Soul.

    Soul could mean Catlett’s mahogany sculpture Black Unity (1968) – a clenched fist raised in the Black Power salute.

  • Elizabeth Catlett, Black Unity

    Elizabeth Catlett, Black Unity, 1968.

    Mahogany wood. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas. © Catlett Mora Family Trust/DACS, London/VAGA, NY 2017.

  • Soul could mean Sugar Shack (1976), a club scene by Ernie Barnes, all movement and the joy of dancing and living.

    Soul could be Betye Saar’s assemblage sculpture The Liberation Of Aunt Jemima (1972) – the remake of a safe and iconic All American symbol, to reveal the life beneath the smiling, jolly, Black Mammy of Gone With The Wind myth: a woman with an “Aunt Jemima” notebook holder clutching a broom in one hand and a rifle in the other.

    Soul could be the 80s performance art of Lorraine O’Grady, who like me, was published in the seminal feminist art magazine: Heresies. This magazine took the expression of black women and did not mediate it. It presented it whole. For Art Is (Girlfriends Times Two) (1983/2009, above) O’Grady and a group of actors and dancers entered a float into Harlem’s African-American Day Parade. Carrying gold picture frames, they framed everything and everyone they passed as art.

    In the end, transgression, for me, underlines Soul of a Nation. It will be a powerful showcase of an era when African American – and Black British – artists took the Age into their hands without permission or apology.

    The artists want you to look. Engage.

    The work speaks its own language.

    And that language was and is: transcendence.

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