Walking into the Whitechapel is walking backwards into the past in ways that the curators of "Back to Black" certainly did not have in mind. This group show of 47 artists is really about nothing more than a curatorial schema. The gallery administrators ought to have known that postmodernism has lost its credibility. "Back to Black" raises waffle to a point of high principle. The show is like opening an embalmed Egyptian mummy, and gives us just about the same insight into an epoch.
The misrepresentation of history at the Whitechapel is not only diversionary; it is slanderous of a generation that changed the course of history. The exhibition is opportunistic and cliche-ridden. It is pompously described as being about the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s in America, Britain and Jamaica. There was no such movement. The period was not a reincarnation of the Harlem Renaissance - several paintings (really illustrations) by Ernie Barnes have a feel of that extraordinary and creative time but, true to the show's postmodern kitsch, they contain every cliche. And I am not sure why a 1956 oil painting by Aubrey Williams and a 1950 watercolour/ink-wash by Edna Manley are included.
The show's inherent problem is that it simply degenerates into deadened entertainment. It fossilises a period of time that is still affecting us. It is apparent, wherever one looks, that the impact of the decolonisation of Africa on people of African ancestry - and everyone else, too - remains vivid, and that the anti-colonial struggles distilled and built upon by the American civil rights movement are still present. The news has recently been full of the exhumation of Emmett Till, whose lynching and open-coffin funeral 50 years ago emboldened Rosa Parks to remain seated on an Alabama bus in the face of violent threats. These "events" sparked a generation to say "no more". The conviction last month of the Klansman Edgar Ray Killen for the manslaughter of three civil rights workers in 1964 proves that the period covered by this exhibition is not over, and underlines the wrong perspective of "Back to Black".
After passing by a few insipid photographs of a naked actress with afro hair and mannequins (sculpture?) dressed up in period clothing, I began to wonder where the exhibits were that related to what caused all this culture. Afro hair was not simply a fashion statement, but an expression of the profound effect of Africa's decolonisation and the American civil rights movement. I thought things could only get better, and regained some of the enthusiasm I had felt walking along Whitechapel High Street and watching a demonstration by people defending the Koran against its desecration in the Camp X-Ray and Camp Delta prisons at Guantanamo Bay.
I then found Gordon Parks's photograph of Muhammad Ali in training, sitting on a chair with taped hands. This image of the extraordinary athlete doesn't indicate his profound political impact on radically minded young people who needed a public voice to declare "enough is enough". Parks's expressive photograph of Ethel Shariff in Chicago, on the other hand, does reflect the turmoil and acute optimism of those times without depending on much knowledge of the subject, which is why it's a gem. I stared for 15 minutes at Romare Bearden's The Dove. What power! It made my journey through this anodyne show worthwhile. Go only to see The Dove and it will be a very productive experience. This photomontage makes Barnes's The Sugar Shack look asinine, a picture that would make you cringe even if it were decorating the wall in a dentist's waiting room.
Other photographs are really snaps that aspire only to record a personal event, and not to make a statement about that event. There was an exception to this among the works by Vanley Burke. His image of the Frightened Horse pub in Handsworth, Birmingham is printed illogically big, but it nevertheless retains pictorial strength. It's a good photograph because it says something about life in a certain environment - because the photographer was able to translate that on to film. The print quality was an insult, and, as photographers say, much more could have been got out of the negative.
I go upstairs, with Bearden and The Dove metaphorically under my arm. The curators and designers of "Back to Black" got this wrong, too. Upstairs should have been downstairs. The social movement is a direct reflection of the greater political movements of the day, and the curators reversed it. I liked Horace Ove's 1975 film about Michael X for its historic value. A screen print with collage by Gavin Jantjes draws the connection between events in the anti-Portuguese colonial African wars and African Caribbean and American people. Llewellyn Xavier's four screen prints of George Jackson sing out with the resistance of the 1960s.
One thing about the Vietnam war was the way photography, moving and still, was able to record and freely affect the aggression. With the end of the war in the mid-1970s, photography emerged stronger than ever as an instrument for documenting the impact of events on people. Photography in "Back to Black" is a minor thing, and it somewhat jars that non-photographic images emerge more powerfully.
The current struggle to expose the general acceptance in America of lynching as a means of social control from the early 1880s to 1968 (yes, that's right, 1968) has brought the historic African experience back to the US. American civil rights activists are talking about having a US-type, post-apartheid truth and reconciliation commission. Contrary to the postmodernists and the curators of this passe exhibition, history is not dead.
"Back to Black: art, cinema and the racial imaginary" is at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London E1 (020 7522 7888) until 4 September, and at the New Art Gallery Walsall (01922 654 400) from 30 September to 20 November
Larry Herman is a photographer. He has just completed Land, Land, Land!, a book of his photographs about the struggle of millions of African American families who have been driven off their land in the southern United States