Kool-Aid colors, assemblage, and a raised fist: art of black America comes to The Broad

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The civil rights movement and its aftermath produced activism, music, fashion, and visual art.

Now that visual art comes to the Broad Museum in downtown, in a powerful exhibition of paintings, sculpture, and graphics. It is called “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, 1963 to 1983.”

The show comes to LA after stops in several cities, including Bentonville, Arkansas and Brooklyn, New York.

But the exhibition originated at the Tate Modern in London. Why did it take a museum in the UK to produce an exhibit that understands the soul of America?

Elizabeth Catlett, Black Unity, 1968 (detail). Cedar. 21 in. × 12 1/2 in. × 23 in. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, 2014.11. Photography by Edward C. Robison III. © Catlett Mora Family Trust/VAGA at ARS, NY

DnA talks to Tate senior curator Zoe Whitley and Broad curator Sarah Loyer about a show that spans 20 years, 60 artists, and a range of artistic and political messages.

From the Spiral group and Emory Douglas graphics for the Black Panthers, to portraits of Martin Luther King Jr and Angela Davis in Kool Aid colors by Chicago’s AfricCobra, to a room dedicated to the assemblage creations of LA’s Betteye Saar, the emphasis of the curation is on art in the age of Black Power, from 1963 to 1983.

“In terms of our self identification,” explains Whitley, “we moved from really the tail end of people using Negro to Afro-American to African-American via black. And so there is this sense of charting a whole way of thinking about, how do we want to position ourselves vis a vis others? How do I present myself? How do I present my artwork? There's no single answer.”

The show begins with the spiral collective, founded in 1963 before the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. All works are in black and white.

“We have some really great artists of that moment, like Norman Lewis with his work ‘America the Beautiful.’ ...At first it appears to be an abstract black and white picture -- a painting. And then as you start to get closer to it and study the image, you see that it's actually Ku Klux Klan members... So you can't just simply read it as a neutral abstract painting after that,” describes Sarah Loyer, Associate Curator and Exhibitions Manager at The Broad.

Another section of the exhibit includes street art. Loyer says many artists in this era work in nontraditional spaces -- partly because they didn’t have the opportunity to show in commercial galleries and museums, and partly because it was a way of spreading political content. Some of the works are by Faith Ringgold and Emory Douglas, the minister of culture for the Black Panther Party.

Carolyn Lawrence, Black Children Keep Your Spirits Free, 1972. Acrylic on canvas. 49 x 51 x 2 in. Image courtesy of the artist. © Carolyn Mims Lawrence

In another room, there’s an explosion of color. It shows the works of AfriCobra artists, a collective of artists working in Chicago. “They called it Kool Aid colors… It's very, very vibrant, and bright, and really highly political images,” says Loyer. “We can also see in this gallery representations of really important political figures, like we have Angela Davis… and Malcolm X. So there is definitely this uplifting of black heroes.”

She says the black arts movement was the aesthetic sister of the black power movement, and it called for images that would lead to political change.

Betye Saar, Rainbow Mojo, 1972. Acrylic painting on cut leather, 19 3/4 x 49 3/4 in. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California. Photo credit: Robert Wedemeyer

In a gallery dedicated to assemblage, works from Noah Purifoy and John Outerbridge are displayed. They’re made of found materials, such as a piece by Purifoy that was made out of the burnt wood that he collected from from the streets after the 1965 Watts Rebellion.

Another collection called “Black Portraits” includes a self-portrait of Barclay Hendricks, dressed in a Superman T-shirt and wearing aviator glasses (but no pants), that is dedicated to the Black Panther leader Bobby Seale.

The exhibition ends with a room dedicated to Betye Saar. The gallery recreates Saar’s first survey exhibition at Cal State Los Angeles in 1973.

Curator Zoe Whitley says Saar is important because she was “making this work from a very self-identifiably feminist position.”

Saar takes hurtful imagery -- imagery of mammy figurines and other objects -- and finds ways to subvert them “to give us power rather than take power away,” Whitley says.

“Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, 1963–1983” opens at the Broad on Saturday, March 23rd.



  • Zoe Whitley - curator of international art at Tate Modern
  • Sarah Loyer - Associate Curator and Exhibitions Manager at The Broad