Now on view through September 1 at The Broad is “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power.” The expansive show is internationally acclaimed for its spotlight on the work of over 60 black artists made in the United States between 1963 and 1983, highlighting the art and politics that began at the height of the civil rights movement.
Whitewall spoke with Sarah Loyer, Associate Curator & Exhibitions Manager at The Broad, about the show’s west coast debut, its special programming, and what important works are being shown in the U.S. for the first time.
WHITEWALL: The artists exhibited in this show are of great importance for an array of reasons. Can you tell us a bit about them? and how the show is positioned to showcase them?
SARAH LOYER: While the exhibition takes a national scope, many of the artists featured throughout are L.A.-based. We felt it was important to bring this show to Los Angeles to highlight the major role L.A. artists play in this narrative, as well as to provide a broader context in which LA artists were working. Three galleries are dedicated specifically to Los Angeles-based artists, including a gallery featuring artists working in assemblage such as Noah Purifoy, John Outterbridge, Melvin Edwards, John T. Riddle, Daniel LaRue Johnson, and Betye Saar; a gallery devoted to LACMA’s 1971 exhibition, “Three Graphic Artists,” featuring the work of Charles White, David Hammons, and Timothy Washington; and a gallery that recreates the feel of Betye Saar’s first survey exhibition, which was at Cal State L.A. in 1973.
WW: The 20-year period in which this show is representative of was a very important time in history. What did you want the show’s message to be overall?
SL: The exhibition starts in 1963 with the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, and includes work made in the following two decades by artists across the United States. While the exhibition includes references to many historical events during this revolutionary era, its focus is on the artwork and artists. In order to maintain this focus, the exhibition is organized thematically rather than chronologically; some galleries include artists working in collectives, while others show artists with shared concerns or methods, and still others focus on historic exhibitions. During this era, artists were engaged in rigorous debates about what it meant to be a black artist. With the work of over 60 artists on view, there are over 60 unique positions—both aesthetic and political—included in the exhibition.
WW: On the show’s opening day, The Broad held a symposium—organized by Bridget R. Cooks, Associate Professor, Department of African American Studies and Art History at the University of California, Irvine, and Frank Wilderson, Professor, Department of African American Studies, UC Irvine. What were some highlights from that conversation?
SL: “Art and Politics: Soul of a Nation Symposium” was an important day of dialogue featuring in-depth conversations between luminaries in the field of art. Artist conversations included exhibition artists Jae Jarrell, Wadsworth Jarrell, and Gerald Williams, who spoke about their experiences and artwork made as part of the Chicago-based collective AfriCOBRA, moderated by Vida Brown, Visual Arts Curator at the California African American Museum, as well as exhibition artist Mel Edwards, who spoke about his time living and working in Los Angeles with artist Dale Davis, co-founder of Brockman Gallery in Leimert Park, moderated by Isabelle Lutterodt, Director of the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery and Barnsdall Art Park.
One panel discussed the politics of black exhibitions with curators and art historians working today including: Thelma Golden, Director and Chief Curator, The Studio Museum in Harlem; Kellie Jones, Professor, of Art and Archeology at the Institute for Research in African American Studies, Columbia University; Naima Keith, Vice President, Education and Public Programs, LACMA; facilitated by Bridget R. Cooks.
Another thematic conversation, between Phyllis Jackson, Professor of Art History, Pomona College, and Frank Wilderson, focused on both panelists’ political awakenings during this era and the relationship to art and critical thinking. A highlight was a conversation between Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation and filmmaker Ava Duvernay, who spoke about supporting the work of underrepresented filmmakers through Duvernay’s visionary work with her organization, Array, as well as upcoming projects. The day ended with a poetry reading from the renowned poet Kamau Daaood.
WW: The Broad is showing two important works—Icon for My Man Superman (Superman Never Saved Any Black People – Bobby Seale), 1969 by Barkley Hendricks and Watts Riot, 1966 by Noah Purifoy. Tell us why these two works were so important to show.
SL: Barkley Hendricks’ painting is at once a self-portrait of the black artist as superhero and a statement of solidarity with Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale. Quoting Seale at his trial, Hendricks suggests he doesn’t need Superman to save him. This painting is deeply important, and we are thrilled to include it in our presentation.
Noah Purifoy’s is on loan to The Broad from the California African American Museum (CAAM), which is the largest institutional lender to the exhibition. CAAM was actually founded in Los Angeles during the time period covered in this exhibition and is a vital museum for our city. Noah Purifoy was the co-founder of the Watts Towers Arts Center in 1964. He was deeply affected by the 1965 Watts Rebellion, six days of civil unrest, resulting in thirty-four deaths, thousands of injuries, and $40 million in property damages. His response was to create assemblage artworks out of the rubble he collected from the streets. Purifoy’s work is crucial to a conversation about art in Los Angeles during this era, and we are very thankful to CAAM for loaning this work along with six others from their collection.
WW: Are there any other highlights being presented from the previous Tate Modern show?
SL: Works that are on view for the first time in the context of this exhibition since Tate Modern’s presentation include two other assemblage works made in Los Angeles—Sambo’s Banjo, 1971-72, by Betye Saar (also on loan from CAAM), and I’ve Got Rhythm, 1972, also by Saar, on loan from the Whitney Museum of American Art—as well as Injustice Case, 1971, by David Hammons, a body print made from margarine and powdered pigment encased in a frame wrapped with an American flag. Hammons made this work while living in L.A. and it was the central catalogue image of his work for LACMA’s 1971 exhibition, “Three Graphic Artists,” featuring work by Charles White, David Hammons, and Timothy Washington.
There are also several works that we have added specifically to The Broad’s presentation, often to bolster the sections of the show dedicated to Los Angeles, such as two early assemblage works by Daniel LaRue Johnson, a work by John T. Riddle, two charcoal drawings by Charles White, and three additional body prints by David Hammons, including The Door (Admissions Office), 1969, which stands in the center of the gallery and is also on loan from CAAM. Made fifty years ago, this work reminds us of the long history of inequity in our educational institutions that continues to be all too relevant today.
WW: Accompanying the show is an exhibition at Art + Practice in Leimert Park entitled “Time is Running Out of Time.” Tell us a bit about that.
SL: We’re co-presenting with Art + Practice “Time Is Running Out of Time: Experimental Film and Video from the L.A. Rebellion and Today” to give our L.A. audience another opportunity to examine the legacy of black artists in Los Angeles and a fuller understanding of the era explored by “Soul of a Nation.” This free exhibition, which was co-curated with The Broad’s programs manager, Jheanelle Brown, features short works made by the Los Angeles School of Filmmakers, or the L.A. Rebellion, a group of young black students who were pioneering filmmakers and video artists working in the social context of the period following the 1965 Watts Uprising. In dialogue with these films are works from the following generations of filmmakers and artists in L.A. Across generations, themes include the robust representation of communities, families and lineages, and the complexities of identities informed by social and political realities.