‘Soul of a Nation’ explores once overlooked works from the black power era

A member of the Spiral artist group, Normal Lewis’ oil-and-canvas work called “America the Beautiful” from 1960 is part of the “Soul of a Nation” exhibit at Crystal Bridges.

© Estate of Norman W. Lewis; Courtesy of the collection of Tonya Lewis Lee and Spike Lee, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York.

Dana Chandler Jr. would like you to know the art he and his friends made was as good as anything his same-age contemporaries were making in the early years of the Civil Rights movements. He’d also like you to buy his art.

“We knew what we created was as valid as anything at the time. We didn’t care that the critics weren’t grown enough to recognize it. We would have curators saying, “What black art?” They were white curators, and they didn’t know. They didn’t want to know.”

What: “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power”
When: Through April 23
Where: Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville
Cost: Free for members; $10 for general public
Information: Call 479-418-5700 or visit crystalbridges.org

A representative sample of the answer to the question those curators posed can be found through April 23 at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville in the exhibit “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power.” The collection of works made by black artists from 1963-1983 comes to Crystal Bridges from the Tate Modern museum in London, and the stop in Bentonville is one of only two times the works will be displayed together in this country. An exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City will follow the run at Crystal Bridges.

Chandler, a retired collegiate educator and one of the artists on display in “Soul of a Nation,” was on hand for a media preview event on Friday. He said that modern audiences are more receptive to the idea that black artists made important work. To his point, the exhibit drew a large media audience on the occasion of their American debut, and a weekend symposium designed to discuss the works with the artists responsible sold out well in advance of its start time.

Chandler didn’t make the London debut of the exhibit and on Friday saw his works, and those of many of his art-making friends, together for the first time. He called to exhibit “one of the most important shows of the century.”

“Soul of a Nation” has been divided into 12 sections that represent movements or artists groups such as Spiral and AfriCOBRA. Each of the sections contain works in a theme, or works made by a group of like-minded artists. The exhibit is so expansive it takes a 20-page guidebook to outline the assembled art, and there’s an insert that further suggests readings and music selections that add global context to what’s on the gallery walls.

Elizabeth Catlett’s cedar sculpture “Black Unity,” made in 1968, is owned by Crystal Bridges and is part of the “Soul of a Nation” exhibit.

Photo by Edward C. Robison III.

Crystal Bridges curator Lauren Haynes has been working with peers at the Tate since her arrival at the Bentonville museum in 2016.

“This is such a great fit [for Crystal Bridges],” she said. “We’re digging in, looking at a certain period and making a statement.”

The assembled pieces span all varieties of media. Works made by the Sprial alliance were purposefully done in black and white. Others, such as the stunning “Mars Dust” by Alva Thomas in bright red and blue, have vivid, bold patterns.

Zoe Whitely, curator of international art for Tate Modern, said that much consideration went into the groupings of the works in “Soul of a Nation.” Meanwhile, the artists represented in the collection had a guiding influence, too. Because many of them are still alive, they could point to works that fit in with the scope of the exhibit.

The 1972 screen print on paper “Revolutionary” by Wadsworth Jarrell.

© Wadsworth Jarrell / Courtesy Lusenhop Fine Art, photo by David Lusenhop

“This is part of the rich history,” she said.

But, importantly, only part, and only a starting place. As interest in works by black artists continues to increase, there will continue to be more to discover.

“As large of a show as this is, it’s just a small sample of what’s out there,” Chandler said.

During the time “Soul of a Nation” visits Bentonville, the museum will host several related events, such as a series of music listening sessions in March and tours of the exhibit at 1 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays.