Black Unity, Elizabeth Catlett, 1968

A man with shades and a neat afro dressed in a Superman T-shirt looks out of the canvas with an unflinching gaze. Painted in 1969, this intriguing self-portrait by Barkley L Hendricks is one of the defining images of the Tate Modern’s landmark exhibition, Soul of A Nation.

Icon for My Man Superman, Barkley L Hendricks, 1969

Sub-titled Art in the Age of Black Power and comprising 150 exhibits spread over 12 rooms, it celebrates the work of black artists in the 20 years following Martin Luther King’s famous March on Washington in 1963, when the civil rights movement was at its height.

At the very least, this turbulent period produced the sense of racial pride and defiance expressed in the aforementioned Icon for My Man Superman (Superman Never Saved Any Black People – Bobby Seale), its title inspired by a remark of the founder of the Black Panthers. But it also prompted the search for a black aesthetic in which artists debated how they should respond to the political and cultural upheavals around them. That’s why the images on show are so divergent in genre and theme, ranging from abstract and pop art to murals and in-your-face propaganda.

Black Unity, Elizabeth Catlett, 1968

The violence of everyday life is a common undercurrent. Dana Chandler recreates the green door in the apartment in which Black Panther Fred Hampton was shot dead by members of the LA Police Department, the wood riddled with real bullet-holes, while Betye Saar’s exquisitely crafted but chilling I’ve Got Rhythm depicts a metronome with a tiny black corpse, post-lynching, attached to the needle.

Melvin Edwards’s screen of dangling barbed-wire with a fringe of chains –  Curtain (for William and Peter) –  offers an unsettling glimpse of American society; other works use the US flag to ironically to drive the same message home, like David Hammons’ X-ray like Injustice Case that depicts  Bobby Seale bound and gagged in an image framed by the Stars and Stripes.

Injustice Case, David Hammons, 1970On a lighter note, in What’s Going On, Hendricks, again, uses the title of the Marvin Gaye song to give his own take on ‘blaxploitation’ films of the day like Shaft and Super Fly in his large-scale painting of a group of hip looking brothers and sisters dressed in white, with one of the women entirely naked.

‘What’s going on?’ might well be thought that this exhibition leaves one with given that, more than 40 years on, a movement like Black Lives Matter has emerged from the police killings of black men and women on the streets of the US.  The artists didn’t know it at the time but the issues they dealt with are as relevant as they have ever been and kudos to the Tate for bringing their work to our attention for the first time this side of the Atlantic.  Adwoa Korkoh
Soul of a Nation: The Age of Black Power runs at the Tate Modern, Bankside, London SE1, until October 22. Entry fee: £15