‘Soul of a Nation’ explodes with Black Power

Overdue de Young exhibition remains relevant in 21st century

“Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983,” a comprehensive traveling exhibition celebrating African-American art and artists from the stormy, revolutionary, momentous Black Power era, has arrived at the de Young Museum.

On view through March 15, the show features more than 150 works created in a wide range of styles by about 60 artists who were active during those 20 years.

Their work reflecting the struggle for equality is proud, political and stirring. It is also, sadly, relevant, in these times when white supremacy and other forms of racism have resurfaced in ways both subtle and blatant.

Organized and first presented at Tate Modern, London, the show, in its San Francisco incarnation, contains unique Bay Area components.

The exhibit begins with a gallery highlighting the Spiral group, a 1960s African-American artist collective. Selections from its show of black-and-white works include two paintings by Norman Lewis that debunked the notion that abstraction could not effectively depict social struggles. In the disquieting “America the Beautiful” (1960), what appears to be typical gestural brushwork contains, on closer look, elements that resemble hoods and crosses, suggesting Ku Klux Klan activity. Lewis’ similarly styled “Processional” (1965) references the Selma-to-Montgomery civil-rights march.

Norman Lewis’ provocative 1960 oil “America the Beautiful” is from a section of “Soul of a Nation” with black-and-white works. (Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

Norman Lewis’ provocative 1960 oil “America the Beautiful” is from a section of “Soul of a Nation” with black-and-white works. (Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

Los Angeles assemblage art addressing the Watts rebellion, in 1965, also receives attention. Works by Noah Purifoy and Melvin Edwards contain detritus and found objects stemming from the event.

A photography gallery pictures numerous black experiences. Major fine-art photographer Roy DeCarava is frequently featured.

Another star is Betye Saar, whose provocative and political assemblages include “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima” (1972). Saar created the work, which reimagines a racist caricature, for an exhibition at Rainbow Sign, the black cultural center and place-to-be in 1970s Berkeley.

Colorful, lively works by artists from the AfriCOBRA group include portraits by Wadsworth Jarrell of Malcolm X (“Black Prince,” 1971), Black Panther Party notables (“Liberation Soldiers,” 1972), and Angela Davis (“Revolutionary,” 1972), created in a pop-pointillist style with a hint of Gustav Klimt.

Faith Ringgold’s painting “The Flag Is Bleeding” (1967), from Ringgold’s “American People” series, features an American flag — a frequent motif in the exhibition — dripping with blood. Black and white individuals appear behind the stars and stripes.

Sam Gilliam merges painting and sculpture in his fetching “Carousel Change” (1970). Viewers can interact with the draped painted canvas.

“I wanted to deal with the beauty, style, grandeur of my folks,” said Barkley L. Hendricks when describing “What’s Going On?” (1974), his “limited palette” painting in which the white background allows the viewer to focus on the radiance of the human figures.

Local artists to look for at the de Young include Mike Henderson and Phillip Lindsay Mason, whose “The Hero” (1979) features a black comic-book-style figure.

Phillip Lindsay Mason’s “The Hero” is among the exhibition’s works by local artists. (Courtesy the artist, Mills College Art Museum, FAMSF)

Phillip Lindsay Mason’s “The Hero” is among the exhibition’s works by local artists. (Courtesy the artist, Mills College Art Museum, FAMSF)

Also at the de Young is Frank Bowling’s painting “Penumbra” (1970), an engrossing new acquisition that considers the African diaspora through a world map reflecting colonial and imperialist realities. Africa and South America are missing from the picture, for starters.

In conjunction with the exhibition, the de Young is hosting free days and events featuring artists associated with the Black Power era.

IF YOU GO

Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983

Where: de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, S.F.

When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; closes March 15

Admission: $25 general; $22 seniors; $16 students; $10 ages 6 to 10; free for ages 5 and under

Contact: (415) 750-3600, www.famsf.org

Note: Also free on Dec. 14, Jan. 11 and Feb. 8.

SELECT EVENTS

Nov. 16: Blues concert with guitarist and “Soul of a Nation” artist Mike Henderson, 1 p.m.

Nov. 23: “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” screens, with star Jimmie Fails, noon

Dec. 7: Drum making workshop with Public Enemy 2.0’s Jahi, noon to 4 p.m.

Dec. 14: “Til Infinity: The Souls of Mischief” screening, followed by 3 p.m. Souls of Mischief performance, 12:30 p.m.

Dec. 21: “Rainbow Poet: Sarah W. Fabio,” a film about the “mother of black studies,” screens, with Q&A by Cheryl Fabio, noon

Dec. 28: Jim Prigoff master class on The History of Murals, 2 p.m.

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