'Soul of a Nation' at L.A.'s Broad Highlights Core Generation of African-American Artists

Barbara Jones-Hogu/Courtesy of The Broad
Unite (First State)

Featuring works from 1963-1983 by such artists as Betye Saar and Dave Hammons, many loaned by such Hollywood collectors as Spike Lee and Jay-Z and Beyonce, the show opens March 23.

From the collection belonging to Tonya and Spike Lee, America the Beautiful is a 1960 black-and-white canvas by Norman Lewis that initially appears to be an abstract, until you draw nearer and see it is composed of symbols of hatred, including Ku Klux Klan hoods. Hanging nearby is a body print by Los Angeles-based artist David Hammons, from the Carter Collection belonging to Beyonce and Jay-Z. And Barkley Hendricks’ canvas, What’s Going On, belonging to producer Hunter Gray and his wife, is also included, as is Benny Andrews' Did the Bear Sit Under the Tree? from the collection of Endeavor CEO Ari Emanuel.

They’re all part of "Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983," detailing the African-American experience in a time of political unrest through the paintings, photos and sculptures of 60 artists, at The Broad, March 23 through Sept. 1.

"They had an audience, but it was a small audience at that time, the way that artists practicing in under-recognized areas have to depend on one another," The Broad founding director Joanne Heyler tells The Hollywood Reporter. "There was some attention being paid by some collectors and collectors of color." Quincy Jones was one of those collectors back in the day and remains one today. Likewise, so are Samuel L. Jackson, Denzel Washington, record producer Swizz Beatz and Grey’s Anatomy star Jesse Williams.

"I do think that celebrities like Jay-Z and Beyonce doing a video in the Louvre or even Solange incorporating artwork in her albums and her videos, I think that has deepened the conversation for people who may or may not see themselves in a museum space," offers vp education and public programs at LACMA Naima Keith. "Some museum people might scoff at that idea, but I think if people who follow Jay-Z and Beyonce maybe go to the Louvre and discover something new, I'm all for it. To me, it's exciting to see just how popular culture and the art world are colliding in so many different ways."

An opening night party on Friday is expected to bring guests including Angela Bassett, Courtney B. Vance, artist Mark Bradford, Anna Deavere Smith, Ava DuVernay, Justin Simien and hosts Eli and Edythe Broad.

Examining influences from the Civil Rights and Black Power movements to minimalism and abstraction, "Soul of a Nation" offers political statements, such as Emory Douglas' work for the Black Panther newspaper showing Huey Newton seated with a rifle in one hand and a spear in the other. But it also presents apolitical photo collages by Romare Bearden, as well as works that land in between, like Hammons' The Door (Admissions Office), which includes a glass-paned door stenciled with the titular words, defaced with black smears of arms, face and torso, as if someone had run smack into it while closed.

"I think most of us understand this was a time of civil unrest," says Keith, who was formerly deputy director and chief curator of the California African American Museum. "It wasn’t all a picture of a Black Panther with a gun, but different people’s responses to the time period in which they were working. What the show also does well is provide a historical context, so people understand that some of the work that was produced at the time that maybe had a militaristic stance was doing so because of the violence that was happening all around them."

When Heyler decided to bring the show to Los Angeles, after seeing it at London's Tate Modern in 2017, she knew she wanted to build out the exhibit’s L.A.-based elements, giving Betye Saar greater play, including her Sambo's Banjo, a delicate piece at CAAM that doesn't travel well. Additional works by Noah Purifoy and David Hammons were added, with seven pieces overall coming from CAAM.

"For us, it was important because this work deserves to be shown, especially in the context of a larger international conversation, but also because CAAM has been collecting and supporting these artists since its founding," Keith says.

While works by an African-American artist like the late Jean-Michel Basquiat sell for hundreds of millions of dollars, his nearest competitor is Mark Bradford, who tops out at around $12 million, the highest ever paid for a living African-American artist. Meanwhile, white counterpart Gerhard Richter set a record at twice the amount.

If markets seem slow to react, at least museums and other fine arts institutions are beginning to stir. Keith worked on the Hammer's 2011 show, "Now Dig This: Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980," which featured many of the same artists in "Soul of a Nation," while LACMA's 2015 exhibit, "Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada," relocated works from the eccentric artist’s Joshua Tree retreat to the museum campus. LACMA's current Charles White retrospective dovetails with "Soul of a Nation," as does The Skirball Institute’s "Black Is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite," which opens April 1.

Surrounding "Soul of a Nation" is a schedule of conversations with figures including Thelma Golden, director and chief of The Studio Museum in Harlem — "Art & Politics: Soul of a Nation Symposium" takes place Saturday at Aratani Theatre. Keith will sit for a conversation with Kellie Jones, professor of art history and archaeology and the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University. Sponsoring partner Ford Foundation president Darren Walker will chat with filmmaker Ava DuVernay, director of the upcoming series Central Park 5 and founder of Array, a distribution company dedicated to independent films by people of color and women.

"There's a tendency in our polarized moment for people to think monolithically. There were many different ways to make art as an African-American artist and always have been," Heyler says. "In terms of the general audience that will come in and see this show, I hope they come away with a nuanced view of art practice during that period. I hope that they also see that we still have a long way to go as a society, and that some of the concerns that are very raw and evident in some of the works are still very much with us today."