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Soul of a Nation: a revelatory exhibition telling the story of black art

Tate Modern offers a powerful glimpse into the civil rights struggle.

The story of American art in the 1960s and 1970s has two main narratives. The first is that of the mainstream – pop art, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg and Johns – and is exclusively white. The second is an undercurrent – the artists of the civil rights movement and their successors – and is exclusively black. The two strands have remained, ironically, stubbornly segregated. Even when they sporadically seem to converge, in Warhol’s Race Riot paintings of 1964, for example, the connection is glancing. Warhol’s paintings were not heartfelt social commentary: he said that the photographs of the Birmingham, Alabama protest merely “caught his eye”. “Soul of a Nation” is Tate Modern’s attempt to tie the two narratives together.

This is a genuinely revelatory exhibition. It spans the period 1963 to 1983 and there are some 60 artists represented by 150 works; the vast majority of both will be largely unknown to British audiences. The familiar images of the civil rights movement and black power are photographs of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, of Tommie Smith’s clenched-fist salute at the 1968 Olympics and the defiance of Muhammad Ali, of the music of Aretha Franklin and John Coltrane and the novels of Toni Morrison.

The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense formed in 1966 with the call for the “power to determine the destiny of our black community”. The Organisation of Black American Culture formed a year later with the same wish for black artists. Although their art did not gain as much purchase on the popular imagination as Warhol et al, black artists nationwide were far from silent, as “Soul of a Nation” shows.

It is not, however, an exhibition merely about racial politics – it examines, too, the notion of a “black aesthetic” and whether its practitioners saw themselves as black first and then as artists, or the other way round. Politics tends to make for uneven art and the work on show here veers between crude agitprop and highly accomplished.

One of the founding fathers of black art, Norman Lewis, got the balance right early. His America the Beautiful (1960) looks at first to be an abstract picture comprising white triangles spattering a black canvas. It is only at second glance that those triangles resolve themselves into Ku Klux Klansmen and their random spread becomes a nighttime procession. Lewis was a late abstract expressionist, a colleague of Rothko, and had previously stated that “political and social aspects should not be the primary concern; aesthetic ideas should have preference”. As the 1960s progressed, however, and Lewis himself joined the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, that position became untenable.

Just as potent, though more straightforward, are Faith Ringgold’s American People Series #20: Die (1967), and United States of Attica (1971-2). The first shows a chaotic scene of black and white Americans shooting and stabbing each other in the street, even as white and black children cower and comfort one another: it is a scene of slaughter in which everyone is the victim and is clearly influenced by Picasso’s Guernica. The second is a map of the United States in red and green, the colours of Pan-Africanism, commemorating the deaths of 42 men – the majority black inmates – during the Attica Prison Riot for better conditions and political rights. It also lists the deaths of innumerable other black citizens across the country and exhorts the viewer: “This map of American violence is incomplete, please write in whatever you find lacking.”

Not all Lewis and Ringgold’s successors had the same ability to mix the art and the message. Wadsworth Jarrell’s 1971 portrait of Malcolm X, Black Prince, for example, is comprised of brightly coloured letters spelling out one of the activist’s calls-to-arms. Like a Banksy, it is clever and packs a one-hit impact, but out of its own time it has the look of a hallucinogenic Jimi Hendrix album cover rather than a radical rallying-cry.

Malcolm X is also the subject of Jack Whitten’s Homage to Malcolm (1970), a huge triangle (representing Malcolm X’s visit to the pyramids) of blacks, inky blues and dark reds. Without the title and the knowledge that Whitten – awarded the National Medal of the Arts by Barack Obama in 2015 – had scored the thick paint surface with his afro-comb, the picture could be interpreted in various ways (depression, the occult, night moods…) that have nothing to do with racial politics. For Whitten, though, abstraction was as valid a way of treating the black experience as any other.

Whitten is one of several artists in this constantly surprising and thought-provoking display, which takes in everything from mural art to conceptual art, and shows how times have changed: Jean-Michel Basquiat, who could have figured at the end of the exhibition’s timespan but isn’t included, is currently the second-highest grossing artist of 2017 (behind Picasso), with sales of more than $252m and counting. That is the real narrative of the exhibition: how art about the experience of being black became simply art by black painters and sculptors. 

“Soul of a Nation” runs until 22 October

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 13 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Maybot malfunctions

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The Sad Part Was: this story collection puts the real Bangkok on display

Thai author Prabda Yoon descends into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters.

In Bangkok’s budding literary scene, Prabda Yoon sits at the centre. Born in 1973, he’s the scion of a well-known family (his father Suthichai Sae-Yoon is the co-founder of the Nation newspaper) and is known in Thailand as not only an enfant terrible of letters but as an illustrator, screen-writer and director (his first film, Motel Mist, was shown at European festivals in 2016).

His reputation rests mainly on a collection of short stories published in 2000 entitled in Thai Kwam Na Ja Pen, roughly translated as Probability, and it is from this early collection that most of the stories now collected in The Sad Part Was are derived. Translated with cool elegance by Mui Poopoksakul, they are among the first modern Thai stories to be published in the UK.

As Poopoksakul points out in her afterword, she and Yoon are the products of similar backgrounds and epochs: upper-middle class children of Bangkok who came to consciousness in the late Eighties and Nineties. Often foreign-educated, fluent in English and conversant in global pop culture and media – Yoon did a stint at Parsons in New York after prep school at the Cambridge School of Weston – this new generation of Thai writers and artists were born into a society changing so fast that they had to virtually invent a new language to transcribe it.

In The Sad Part Was, the result is stories that one could glibly label as “post-modern” but which, in reality, perfectly match the qualities of the megacity where they are set. Bangkok is infamously mired in lurid contradiction, but it’s also a city of subtle and distorted moods that journalism and film have hitherto mostly failed to capture. The whimsical and playful surfaces of these stories have to be read against the high-octane anxieties and surreal dislocations of what was, until recently, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Yoon uses the short form of the ten-page story to descend into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters: a schoolgirl and a beautiful female teacher who form a platonic lesbian infatuation while riding a daily bus in “Miss Space”; a couple making love during a thunderstorm whose activities are interrupted by the dismantling of two giant letters, which fall onto their roof in “Something in the Air”; a young man who meets a mysterious older man in Lumpini Park called Ei Ploang, who forces him to consider the intertwined nature of good and evil. In “Snow for Mother”, a mother waits for her little boy to grow up so that she can take him to Alaska to experience the real snow, which he never knew as a little boy in the tropics.

In “The Sharp Sleeper”, a man named Natee obsesses over losing his shirt buttons and is led into a strange reverie on the nature of dreams and the competing qualities of red and yellow pyjama shirts (Thailand’s political culture is riven by two parties popularly known as Red and Yellow Shirts). The commentary slips into effortless sarcasm:

Natee has proudly worn the red pyjama shirt several times since then, and his dream personality hasn’t altered at all. On the contrary, the shirt has encouraged him to become a man of conviction in his waking life. As to what those convictions were supposed to be, Natee wasn’t quite sure. But it was safe to say that a night shirt so principled wouldn’t drop a button so easily.

Since these stories were written, Bangkok’s political schizophrenia has lost its former air of apathy and innocence, but Yoon’s tone is quietly prescient about the eruption of violent irrationality a few years later. It’s a reminder how precious the subtlety of fiction is when set against the shrill certitudes of activism and reportage.

My favorite story here is “Something in the Air”. Its dialogues are written with hilariously archaic, bureaucratic formality, while delving into the disorientation of sexual and romantic hopes in the present century. After the couple’s love-making is interrupted, the young man suggests insolently to the woman that they resume in the open air, exposed to the furious elements. She agrees. They then notice that a dead body is lying on the roof nearby, crushed by the giant letters.

While waiting for the police to arrive, the woman sits quietly and describes her future, a happily married future in which her current lover will play no part whatsoever. He listens in melancholy astonishment until the couple are called to give their testimonies about the dead man. The officers then suspect that the couple themselves have done something scandalous – and so, stung by shame, the woman considers breaking off the relationship and setting in motion her own prophesy.

The Sad Part Was is unique in the contemporary literature of Bangkok – it doesn’t feature bar girls, white men, gangsters or scenes redolent of The Hangover Part II. Instead it reveals, sotto voce, the Thai voices that are swept up in their own city’s wild confusion and energy, and it does so obliquely, by a technique of partial revelation always susceptible to tenderness.

Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist living in Bangkok. His next book, “Beautiful Animals”, will be published by Hogarth in August

The Sad Part Was
Prabda Yoon
Tilted Axis Press, 192pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder