Black art: Malcolm X to Moonlight
Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff visits Tate Modern's exhibition of art by African Americans in the age of Black Power, and reflects on the visibility of black art and culture today.
Produced by Griselda Murray Brown. Presented by Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff. Filmed by Nicola Stansfield. Edited by Richard Topping. Footage from Moonlight and Get Out (available now via digital download and on Blu-ray™ and DVD on July 24). Pictures from Getty Images; Rex Features; Alamy; Tate; ©Kerry James Marshall, courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York; ©2017 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; ©1986 Lorna Simpson; © Emma Amos; courtesy of the artist and RYAN LEE, New York. Licensed by VAGA, New York.
Civil Rights-era America-- arts, imagery, and activism-- this is the story of how black artists helped to reshape a nation's cultural identity between the mid-1960s and 1980s.
But what did it mean to be a black artist then? And how do we think about black culture today?
One of the questions that the artists were asking themselves, and no artists had the same answer-- there wasn't, like, there was a consensus-- was thinking about why are we here? Who's my art for? Is it for me and is it for self, or is it for my community?
And also where to show art-- so for certain artists, that issue was addressed by holding institutions to account and saying, we deserve to be seen in this mainstream spaces that are excluding us. But for many others, there was actually completely different answer.
So in the second room of the exhibition, "Art on the Streets" we opened with a quote by Emory Douglas. And Emory Douglas was the minister for culture of the Black Panther Party.
And he said that for the revolutionary artist, the ghetto is the gallery. And so there was no sense of wanting to appeal to institutions to get a way in and get a look in. It was all about saying actually art needs to meet people where they are.
Is there a danger, Atul, that this exhibition becomes tokenistic? How do you make sure that the Tate keeps on representing black art?
I think that's the crucial question. And I think that was one of the things that was at the forefront of our minds in doing this. If you take an artist like Frank Bowling, for instance, who's also shown here in this work, Frank was here yesterday. He hadn't seen this painting since 1971.
I've written about his work for a number of years. The research that has gone into this show has taken place over a number of years. And many of the artists who were not only in this room, but represented throughout the exhibition, are already in Tate collection.
So is it being a conscious decision, then, to try and censor black artists at Tate, do you think?
I think so. I think this idea of what art is in a singular, or even what modern art is-- we're starting to make that plural and active. There are many histories. There are many voices.
And I think being part of an institution, we have to hold ourselves, and even hold the institution historically to account, for what was left out, or even what may have been in the collection but hadn't been shown. So this exhibition becomes a moment to really acknowledge artists who, as I often say, changed the face of American art.
Tate's show is emotional and informative, as is a similar exhibition on now at the Brooklyn Museum called "We Wanted a Revolution-- Black Radicalism 1965 to 1985."
But both of these are historical. What about the art being made by black artists today?
At the top end of the art market, there are artists like Kerry James Marshall, Julie Mehretu, and Mark Bradford, who's representing the US at the Venice Biennale this year.
But there's also a swelling grassroots movement. A group show in London next month called "Finding Soul" from the collective Touching Bass is one of many projects attempting to capture what feels like a renaissance in black arts in the UK.
Black art is more visible than ever not just in galleries, but in films like "Moonlight," this year's best film of the Oscars, and in TV shows like "Atlanta," "Chewing Gum," and "Insecure."
We've always been creating. But with the emergence of new technology and activism, we're carving out a place for ourselves in the cultural mainstream.
One film from this year, the horror comedy "Get Out," has a white family take over the bodies of their black visitors as a metaphor for the way white culture appropriates blackness.
Oh, hello. I'm Philomena. And you are?
Chris, Rose's boyfriend.
Chris was just telling me how he felt much more comfortable with my being here.
Appropriation is a genuine concern, yet it feels like the display of black art is becoming more than tokenistic. However, as this exhibition shows, racial struggle will always be a part of our history.