ABOVE: Betye Saar, Eye, 1972, acrylic paint on leather, collection of Sheila Silber and David Limburger. © Betye Saar, courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California; Photo: Robert Wedemeyer
Exhibit shows at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston through Aug. 30
Art is a catalyst for social change and social justice, so it’s fortuitous that “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” has opened at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) at a moment of where the Bayou City figures prominently in an international movement.
Curators at London’s Tate Modern organized the traveling exhibition, which opened there in 2017 before heading to the United States with stops at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas, the Brooklyn Museum in New York City, The Broad in Los Angeles and San Francisco’s de Young Museum.
A scheduled opening this spring in Houston, the final showing of the three-year tour, was delayed until late June because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The exhibition remains on view at MFAH through Aug. 30.
“Soul of a Nation” explores the two decades roughly between 1963 and 1983 with powerful artistic statements that crystallize what it meant to be Black during that time while presenting questions to viewers about the Black experience and aesthetic today. The themes are intertwined with the protest and progress stretching from the 1963 March on Washington – where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech – through the Black Panthers, Black Power, Black street rebellions and Black triumphs of the two decades that followed.
“There’s always been this running interest in how we survey or understand what Blackness is, what it means and how it’s supposed to be or not supposed to be – these rigid categories that we give to Blackness that we always are breaking through and not conforming to,” said Dr. Kanitra Fletcher, the exhibit’s MFAH curator.
What has been lauded as a “blockbuster exhibit” traces the work of more than 70 artists in the mid-20th century. In a nod to the Bayou City, there’s an additional section for the Houston show that focuses on the influences of artists associated with Texas Southern University, including Dr. John Biggers, the renowned muralist and educator who founded TSU’s art department in 1949, and Carroll Harris Simms, who arrived the next year to become a key figure in building the program.
“It features artwork and artists that rarely are seen in Houston or haven’t been seen in a long time – and a wide range of them,” said Fletcher, MFAH’s associate curator of modern and contemporary art.
Additionally, she connected the significance of the exhibition to recent events sparking racial justice uprisings, including the death of George Floyd, a Houston-raised man who perished in May under the weight of a Minneapolis police officer’s knee.
“George Floyd is from here,” said Fletcher, who grew up in Clear Lake. “His death is personal to the city and, besides protest, [“Soul of a Nation”] offers another way for Houstonians to engage with and reflect on a worldwide movement that was sparked by his death.”
In addition to Biggers’ “The Stream Crosses the Path” and Simms’ “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” other TSU-associated works and artists in the exhibit include “From the 4th Ward” by photographer Earlie Hudnall Jr. and “Atonement Ram with Icon” by painter Kermit Oliver. There’s also the steel sculpture “Some Bright Morning” by Houston native Melvin Edwards, who was raised in Fifth Ward and took classes at MFAH while in high school.
Works also include sculptor Elizabeth Catlett’s fist-and-faces dark wood knot titled “Black Unity,” a tribute to the courage of John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, as part of the Black Power section. There are several photographs by Roy DeCarava, the first director of the Harlem-based Kamoinge Workshop, a collective of Black photographers founded in 1963, as well as Romare Bearden’s “The Dove” and “The Flag is Bleeding” by Faith Ringgold.
There’s also the work of celebrated assemblage artist Betye Saar, a legend in contemporary art and a Black Arts icon, who turns 94 on July 30.
“The Liberation of Aunt Jemima”— arguably Saar’s most famous work — is a small, early 1970s piece which recasts the mammy figure as a revolutionary with a broom in one hand and a rifle in another. The timeliness, in 2020, of elevating a Black woman in servitude who is taking charge of her destiny can’t be overstated. This is the same moment that the commercial use of this slavery-rooted minstrel caricature – the longtime spokeswoman for the sale of pancake mix and syrup – has been halted. In June, Quaker Oats acknowledged that “Aunt Jemima’s origins are based on a racial stereotype” and said the 130-year-old brand would get a new name and image.
Major support for “Soul of a Nation” is provided by the Texas Commission on the Arts and the Ford Foundation.
Ford Foundation President Darren Walker, a Black attorney and philanthropy executive who spent parts of his childhood in Baytown, Texas and a small town in Liberty County – both near Houston – participated in an opening teleconference with Fletcher and MFAH Director Gary Tinterow.
Walker said the arts are vital to achieving the mission of the Ford Foundation, a social justice philanthropy.
“Without the arts, without the humanities, we really can’t solve the challenges in this country; we can’t overcome injustice,” he said. “Art … helps us develop empathy and we know from the research that empathy helps you as a person to see the humanity in other people. And, until we can see the humanity in each other, we can’t have more justice. Art is critical to having more justice. Having more art will lead to more empathy, which will lead to more justice.”
Walker added that “Soul of Nation” takes viewers on a journey that disrupts the Western canonical art narrative to “reconcile our history and the reality of racism,” finally, in 2020.
“After the murder of George Floyd, deniability of racism is no longer an option. I think we now have a deeper sense of it. I think it is embedded and imbued in most of our institutions from foundations to museums to corporations to our systems. For a museum, this is a challenging moment,” he said. “What museums in America have done is to tell us who we are and to give us our history and to contextualize. … We now know there is more to who we are than what we were being taught. It was a pretty settled thing about what a museum presented and what a museum was … until recently – until we began to have a reckoning of the major underrepresentation of our history.”
As with so much happening during this pandemic, there are additional online opportunities to engage with the exhibit through Saturday discussions that continue each week through Aug. 15.
Replays of previous discussions as well as information about the remaining three Zoom talks and related streaming films can be found on the MFAH’s “Soul of the Nation” site under “virtual programs.”
The online Zoom talks are introduced by Fletcher, who earned her doctorate in the history of art from Cornell University where she researched and wrote about the pursuit of personal and political freedom through the Black aesthetic during the 20th century.
Last Saturday’s discussion featured Black photographers Adger Cowans, Ming Smith, Dawoud Bey and Dr. Deborah Willis.
The MFAH is open to visitors during adjusted in-person hours with prevention protocols in place, including required face masks and social distancing.