Tate Modern’s Soul of a Nation is a captivating, powerful exhibition

Perhaps the most striking image in this captivating exhibition is entitled Injustice Case.

Artist David Hammons used his body to imprint directly onto a canvas the image of a black man gagged and tied to a chair, which is exactly how Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale appeared at his 1970 trial for conspiracy to incite violence. Framed by a sliver of the American flag, it’s a powerful, painful piece of art, evoking both suffering and the righteous indignation of protest. Nearby is Fred Hampton’s Door 2, an actual front door painted a gaudy red that drips symbolically onto the doorstep, its wooden surface pocked with bullet holes; a memorial to its namesake who was shot through his own door by police.

Black artists, and by extension black art, has been so marginalised throughout history that the first collectives of African-American painters and poets in the early 1960s were forced to mull the most fundamental of questions. What is black art? Who is it for? Where should it be displayed, when most mainstream galleries wouldn’t accept their work?

These questions led them down wildly different paths: some tackled brutality head on, painting haunting images of lynchings and KKK rallies and frenetic, bloody depictions of the race riots. There were abstractionists from the east coast, illustrators working for the Black Panther magazine creating political cartoons that borrowed from both pop art and Russian modernist traditions.

There are depictions of black sportsmen and musicians – people unforgivably overlooked in art history. There is African-inspired folk art and works defined by explosions of rhythm and colour, inseparable from the music that inspired them.

This is a big exhibition, and yet it still feels constricted. There’s so much to show, so many artists who have been given such criminally short shrift, so much to catch up on.

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