Saturday 16 February 2019


Tate Gallery, London

”I mean to tell it like it is. I ain’t subtle and I don’t intend to be subtle, so long as America remains the great white destroyer”
- Dana Chandler

The Body Is Graphic

Ask people to think of a medium associated with Black Power, and they’re not going to come back with visual art. Even this show’s title obliquely alludes to that, while the curators compiled an accompanying playlist. For music was not only a ready form of black expression, it was an open channel by which that expression could disseminate. We saw before, with Pop Art that despite the Sixties being so visual a decade visual art struggled to keep up with other media. Were there visual artists who equalled the Last Poets or Gil Scott-Heron in significance? Let’s see what we can find…

It’s certainly true Black Power was partially about image. Its central tenant was that representation of black people – cultural or political – is a task which might sometimes be undertaken by black people, and in fact that make make for something of a change. And that representation applied to culture as much as politics.

Something more the case than in earlier phases of struggle. Civil Rights often deployed the slogan “I am a man”, establishing a fundamental equivalence between black and white folks.It was at root integrationist. And so its practitioners tended to favour a sober-minded look, formal dress countering the black criminal or delinquent stereotype.Whereas the Black Panthers’ original ten-point programme began with “We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our black community.” It was at root autonomous. So Black Power tried to reclaim the black look from the negative stereotypes it had become associated with.

(Disclaimer:Purely for convenience I’m going to pretend Black Power was one discrete entity. Even though it wasn’t. It didn’t reduce solely to the Black Panthers, who hadt heir own highly virulent debates.)

And the poster image is… well, a good poster image of this. Barkley Hendricks’ self-portrait ’Icon For My Man Superman’ (1969, above) is as the title suggests very much an iconic picture, flatly descriptive, double-framed with a minimal background. It’s not an attempt to convey psychological depth. It’s a statement which comes out intothe world, as bold and direct as any presidentialhead carved into a mountainside.

With his S-logo shirt, folded arms and impassive shades, Hendricks looks cooly assertive without being aggressive. He subtitled the picture with a quote from Bobby Searle, “Superman never saved any black people”. The message, as the Guardian’s Laura Cumming puts it, is “Hendricks has no need of Superman. He saves himself.”

(Slightly later, in 1975, Gil Scott-Heron wrote a very similar message with ’Ain’t No Such Thing as Superman’: “Understand that if we’re gonna win/ We've got to get together, stay together, be together, stick together”.)

The effect of this may be hard to grasp, particularly for those born to a later generation, in a different country and – above and beyond all the others- white.For example, me. But imagine if the only popular images you’d ever seen of people like yourself were savages, criminals and rubber-lipped clowns. Then one day you spy people justlike you butbrimming with pride over the way they are, and insistent you could be too. Black Power quickly became a walking, talking symbol of itself.

It’s significant that the term ‘cool’ originates in black culture, even if it now means little more than owning the latest smartphone. When striving to get a grasp on what’s cool, where else is there to go but Wikipedia? “Cool was once an attitude fostered by rebels and underdogs, such as slaves, prisoners, bikers and political dissidents, etc., for whom open rebellion invited punishment, so it hid defiance behind a wall of ironic detachment, distancing itself from the source of authority rather than directly confronting it.”

As Norman Mailer said: “Any Negro who wishes to live must live with danger from his first day… no Negro can saunter down a street with any real certainty that violence will not visit him on his walk.” And how can you respond to that situation other than making a conscious display of sauntering? When the world ruthlessly shoves its weight on your shoulders, what are you going to do but shrug it off with the most carefree gesture possible?

As the term dates to the jazz scene of the Forties, by the Sixties the association was well-established. So Black Power was able to take elements of cool as it chose (self-confidence, autonomy) and combine them with its apparent opposites – righteous anger, collectivism. It was cool and incendiary simultaneously. You can see those all at work in Hendricks.

Focus just for a minute on Hendricks’ afro. This worked in a very different way to the hippies growing their hair, which for all their talk of “going natural” always involved taking on a new identity. The afro was based around the idea that black identity had up till now been suppressed, that if they wanted to get by black people were expected to make their best impersonation of white folks. As the poet Amiri Baraka wrote in ’In Our Terribleness’ (1970) “our beauty is BAD ‘cause we have something like an inner sublime, no longer conforming to white notions of beauty.”

And one of the many means by which Black Power is treated in an institutionally racist way is that the focus is always on its effect upon white society. Whereas it’s primary catchment was black people. It says so much that you even need to point that out.

As AO Scott of the New York Times points out: “Images of black men in black leather jackets and berets, brandishing firearms and raising their fists are part of the collective memory of the ’60s. At the time, those images inspired a wave of publicity and recruiting… Gifted at political theater… they managed, at least for a time, to be both glamorous and grass-roots… They helped to popularize the slogan ‘black is beautiful’ and to promote an aesthetic of pride and self-sufficiency.”

See for example the cover of the Black Panther newspaper featuring Huey Newton (above), with a gun in one hand and a spear in the other, surrounded by African paraphernalia, described as a “warrior king”. This fuses the raised fist of radicalism and the afro of self-beliefinto one neat and powerful statement. The newspaper’s designer, Emory Douglas, was titled the Panthers’ Minister of Culture. While the black activist Angela Davis famously appeared on an FBI ‘Most Wanted’ list sporting a crowning afro, is seen belowon another Black Panther cover.

In Black and White

Interestingly, having said all that, the show also includes art from the earlier Civil Rights era. This focuses on the Spiral group, who formed in 1963 in the context of Martin Luther King’s march on Washington. Reginald Gammon’s ’Freedom Now’ (1963, above) has the immediacy of a newspaper photo, a punchy, immediate image in stark black and white. Yet what’s interesting about it are the collage elements. The chanting heads are placed beneath the marching feet, the slogans on the banners cropped out. On a second look, the heads themselves aren’t attached to protesting bodies but clustered together and overlaid on the canvas.

Both more interesting and more collage-like is Romare Bearden’s ’Pittsburgh Memory’ (1964, above). Why so much collage? Civil Rights had followed both a mass and a media-centred strategy, taking segregation from being the South’s dirty little secret and projecting it over national newspapers and TV screens. In which it had been successful, perhaps successful enough that there was no need to duplicate those images in art.

Plus there’s often a sense with Dada that it used collage less to manipulate reality than to hold a true reflecting mirror to capitalist society, a society fractured into an incoherent jumble of elements. This combines with the Sixties notion of times too volatile to capture ina single clear image. Instead all the artist can do is compress the elements withina frame, and leave them to fight them out.

Yet, even given all that, perhaps what’s most remarkable about Bearden’s image is that, counter to any standard notion of agit-prop art,there’s no representation of white authoritynor any notion of protest. With the equally collaged background it might be an image of urban alienation, thosefaces reflecting what they see. Or thetwo jumbled-together heads mightbe a roadmap of road jams, representingthe alliance of Civil Rights groups held together more by urgency than commonality. (The indicia tells us Bearden had originally tried to get the whole Spiral group to collaborate on a collage, but been rebuffed.)

Abstraction Versus Agitation?

You could compile a show about the age of black power, or about black art in America during this era. Either would be a valuable thing to do. But this exhibition never quite decides which of these it wants to be. And the result is that any friction on the borderline between the two is magnified.

William T Williams ’Trance’ (1969, above) is a geometric work influenced by Abstract Expressionism, with perhaps the bold colour blocks borrowed from Pop Art. Is there any reason for it to be hanging in a Black Power show? My somewhat cynical response to the abstract artist who bestows his work with an agitational title is that he’s just setting up his response to the guy who asks him how this fancy-schmantzy shit is supposed to be helping the soul brothers. Things aren’t true or effective just because you say they are. 

As previously said of Abstract Expressionism, it exhibited a general existentialism for those who lived in peace and abundance. Hardly the lot of black Americans. You were less to indulge in existential angst while cops were beating you up.

Yet the Smokehouse Associates also favoured geometric abstraction. But they were muralists working in Harlem, and the context of grey housing projects completely transforms their work. As Emory Douglas put it pithily ”the ghetto itself is the gallery for the revolutionary artist”.

But then some jazz wafts in and, as it’s wont to do, screws with this straightforward tune.

Jazz was the default example of something black culture was recognised for. (Even if it had been venerated more in Europe than at home.) And it had previously influenced Abstract Expressionism, its departure from song structure paralelling art’s move away from direct representation. Williams called jazz “abstract music’ and named his piece above after a John Coltraine number. And if I can’t see much of a jazz influence in it’s neat angles and sharp distinctions, I do find something closer in Sam Gilliams’ ‘Apr 4’ (1969, below)

That date refers to the murder of Dr King the previous year. A connection which might well be tenuous, existing nowhere but the title. But, in contrast to Williams, the canvas (achieving by staining) suggests depth and detail rather than asserting it. Which does seem something to do with jazz’s bending and blending of musical rules. Meanwhile, Jeff Donaldson’s ’Study For the Wall of Respect (Miles Davis)’(1967, below)combines a portrait with abstraction by combining Davis with a representation of his music. (The study was done to add Davis to a Chicago mural.)

Another work whose inclusion could be debated, though for separate reasons, is Faith Ringgold’s ‘American People Series#20 Die’ (1967,above).Figures are placed at right angles to one another yet at the same time overlapping, as if they’re trying to occupyseparatespacesand failingly straddling one another.The checker blocks of the background magnify the sense of arepeating pattern. Partly due to the elongated shape of the frame it looks like a street scene, even if no actual detail supports that reading. This punches the horrific image home, making it look more everyday.

It’s certainly a powerful work, but what to make of it? Ringgold has a long history of activism relating to race and feminism, as an upcoming example will prove. And the indicia suggests this was a reaction to the sanitised way riots were reported. But, bizarrely, it looks more like race war phobias of white supremacists such as Charlie Manson than a Black Power statement, allied to the popular phobia (persisting to this day) that riots are a result of mass hysteria.

Yet even this ‘race riot’ reading gets convoluted, with the men and women sporting such gender-coded clothing. (All the women wear the same orange dress, all the men white shirts and ties). While a white boy and black girl huddle together. In fact it’s often ambiguous who is instigator or victim, or even attacking who. Is the women to the left running to safety with that child, or attacking the half-cut-off black figure with the child raised like some kind of weapon?

Perhaps our readiness to read race into the conflict is part of the point it’s making. Michael Rodger described it in the New Statesman as “a scene of slaughter in which everyone is the victim”. This is the war of each against all, an effect enhanced by the either/or of the checker background, in which race difference is but an exacerbating factor. It’s naive look makes it seem like one of those drawings made by children who’ve seen war scenes. (And, equally bizarrely, the artist often worked in children’s books.)

The Subjectivity of Objects

The one thing you hope for with group shows such as this is that they introduce you to artists, or better still scenes of artists, you previously had no idea existed. And this show delivers par excellence with the Los Angeles Black Arts scene. These artists counter any easy distinctions between public and agit art carrying a black power message, and gallery art concerned only with aesthetics. They were gallery-based, but if their message was less in your face than others, it was no less potent.

Their methods were often similar to Rauschenberg’s, employing the potency of found objects. For example Noah Purifoy’s ’Watts Riot’ (1966, above), was made from debris found from the riots in the black neighbourhood of LA the previous year.

Whereas Bettye Saar gathered not trash and detritus but readymade images from commercial objects, focusing on depictions of black people for white consumption. By combining them into assemblages, but partly just by foregrounding them, she exposes the malevolence beneath the folksy reassurance. ’The Liberation of Aunt Jemima’ (1972, above) employs variants of a mascot character for pancake mix, still in use today. 

The main figure has clearly been given both the lips and expression of a clown. She has a maid’s broom in one hand, yet Saar’s given her a liberating rifle for the other. In ’Sambo’s Banjo’ (also 1972), Saar added a lynched ‘sambo’ mascot to a banjo case, plus a photo of an actual lynching.

Such cartoonish images are so disparaging they can seem worse than pointedly racist caricatures. At least, once framed by others as a threat, you’re freer to see yourself as a threat. Particularly given their widespread use, your natural reaction is to want them removed from public show. Which is not necessarily wrong, of course. Yet Saar’s subversion of them seems a more powerful response. It’s as if she treats them as malevolent spells, which can’t be repressed by being hidden but whose orientation must be changed. And if that notion only works metaphorically, then art is metaphorical.

In later works Saar became interested in ritual objects from the history of black culture. The altar-like ’Mti’ (1973) dates from this era. Works of this era have a mystery, as if exuding a powerful magic you can’t define, but there is also something slightly mournful about them. They’re quite unlike the normal New Agey raiding of other cultures.

After The Revolution Wasn’t Televised

Faith Ringgold’s ’United Sates of Attica’ (1971/2, above) is named after a notorious prison where adherence to Black Power was likely to get you sent, leading in part to an inmate riot in 1971. It contains the phrase “this map of American violence is incomplete. Please write in whatever you find lacking.”

Except by now, to misquote ’Jaws’, we’d need a bigger canvas. Not only is there an ongoing debate conducted on the streets of America over whether the lives of black people should matter or not, the prognosis isn’t even looking good. We’re constantly told those resisting oppression must somehow be the cause of it, an argument which might seem to break the most basic rule of causality but which nevertheless gets magnified by repetition. The racist far right are openly exultant over the direction things are taking, which seems less than a good sign.

What help can Black Power give us? It’s reliance on heroised images might seem more problematic today. Even at the time, those images travelled further than their political actions. And many read a programme from their militancy, assuming the Panthers only ever got into armed standoffs with cops, at best a gross distortion. But now those images are all that remains, the picture is still more distorted.

People today tend to imagine Black Power was all a pose, a piece of radical theatre which happened to be conducted on the streets. Afros were grown, guns waved and slogans spouted. A view which, ironically, is true of many other aspects of the Sixties – as captured in George Melly’s phrase “revolt into style”. The debate then gets conduced over whether police repression was an appropriate response, to something which was ‘dangerous’ or merely ‘harmless’.

As ex-Panther Lorenzo Kom'boa Ervin put it: “I think that what you got today is style over substance. You've got a lot of people who talk about militancy and they get the Black Panthers style, but they don't have any programme and they don't do any practical work in the community.”

Equally, the temptation to counter such media spin and distortions by merely championing the achievements of Black Power may be an equal but opposite mistake. It was a movement of young people, who in most cases had little to no prior political experience, who were suddenly catapulted onto a national political stage. Against a hostile media and still-more-hostile cops. Inevitably, mistakes were made. Our aim should be not to criticise those involved, but to avoid making those same mistakes again.

All of which inevitably evokes a debate about the effect of heroic icons, whether they’re enabling or just enthralling, whether they encourage people to become their own Superman or leave the citizens of Metropolis looking to the hopeful sky expecting rescue. The same room that contains Hendricks’ self-portrait, for example, also has a Warhol Pop Art screenprint of Muhammad Ali. In a commodity-based society radical content doesn’t auto-innoculate art against merely being consumed like everything else. The Panthers themselves often complained they could be treated as a resource to call on rather than a group to participate with.

But that’s to blunder into a tangled debate which is never likely to be neatly resolved. The one thing to remember is that even static images do not remain static. As the culture that surrounds them changes, inevitably they change too.

Angela Davis, for example, later came to lament her afro’s ubiquity: “I am remembered as a hairdo…it reduces a politics of liberation to a politics of fashion.” But there’s a crucial point here. For that to happen, first the politics of liberation needed to be smashed, in order for its constituent pieces could be prised apart. Davis’ “hairdo” now appears in lifestyle magazines the way that the culture of defeated colonial subjects appears on plinths in the British Museum, mere objects of contemplation. But once they were functioning forces.

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