De Young Museum: ‘Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963–1983’ closing Sunday

“Unite,” 1971, by Barbara Jones-Hogu painting shows nine African American men raising the black power fist in front of the word UNITE repeated in a red white and blue graphic design pattern“Unite,” 1971, by Barbara Jones-Hogu painting shows nine African American men raising the black power fist in front of the word UNITE repeated in a red white and blue graphic design pattern
“Unite,” 1971, by Barbara Jones-Hogu

Review by Wanda Sabir

“Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” at the
DeYoung museum is an opportunity for America to acknowledge the African
presence at the heart of all that is human in this nation. Art articulates a
vision; it is a language which negates artifice.

Black art specifically erases borders as it builds edifices
which house spirit. It is the welcome home – home a new color, a new shape, a
new landscape. Art is the language a people dispersed throughout the West speak
to one another and in this exhibition organized by Mark Godfrey, Zoe Whitley
and Tate Modern, at International Art in London, and remixed by curators
Timothy Anglin Burgard and Lauren Palmor at the DeYoung in San Francisco,
patrons walk slowly through a landscape that is as varied as a people speaking
from these walls, display cases, pages in magazines and books.

The exhibit, which opened in November last year, closes with
a community party on Saturday, March 14, with Boots Riley, who will be giving a
free talk in the Koret Auditorium at 2 p.m. Tickets to “Soul of a Nation” are discounted to $10 on

Four posters by Black Panther Party Minister of Culture Emory Douglas originally published in The Black Panther newspaper – Photo: Gary Sexton

What is remarkable about this exhibit is its currency and
how the San Francisco Bay Area, while not completely eclipsed, is in a large
part left out of the story narrated here. How is this possible? The San
Francisco Bay Area with the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense reflected in
so much visual design, from the music to Emory Douglas’s work as Minister of
Culture for the BPP in the party newspaper … left out?

The Bay is so pivotal in the development of a social and
political consciousness. This is one of the reasons why it is really important
that you do not miss this iteration. When “Soul” opens in Houston next, the
last stop on the tour, the stories that museum tells will be regionally
specific and not include most of the art work curated for this stop.

When a body walks into “Soul of a Nation,” it cannot ignore
the huge Romare Bearden work –a black and white collage. A founding member of
the Spiral Movement, he is well known for his association with August Wilson’s
century cycle – a work that looks at how over a period of 10 decades, Black
Americans crafted their lives, a task that kept unraveling because the thread
was caught in a system meant to harm.

You might notice the similarities between the two men.
Wilson’s storytelling looks a lot like Bearden’s work – characters reappear,
themes consistent. There is balance and then there is a life explored just enough
off kilter to be interesting. Both men are also inspired by Black music of the
period – jazz.

“Mississippi freedom marcher, Washington, DC,” 1963, by Roy DeCarava

Born at the time of the Civil Rights Movements for racial
justice, Mr. Richard Mayhew, retired professor, is another co-founder of
Spiral. He said at a recent event that A. Phillip Randolph founded the group or
at least gave the artists the idea to use their work to make a statement about
the injustices Black people were experiencing.

What is unfortunate is Mr. Mayhew’s absence from the catalog
and the traveling exhibition. How could such a pivotal pioneer be ignored? As “Soul”
has toured the nation, Mr. Mayhew noticed his absence and told somebody: Sister
Nashome Lindo, scholar and art collector, Mrs. Belva Davis, maverick journalist,
Danny Glover perhaps and others, who collectively made sure Mr. Mayhew’s work –
two black and white paintings, were included and that he was properly honored
at the opening ceremonies which were full of pageantry and figurative
fireworks. Mr. Mayhew, who gave many talks during the exhibition, gives
background on Spiral in a wonderful audio tour created by the Fine Arts Museums
and features Belva Davis and Danny Glover as moderators.

Lauren Palmor, co-curator, and I have a wonderful
conversation on Wanda’s Picks Radio Show, Tuesday, March 10 ( about the
social movements covered by the exhibition and perhaps why the Bay was omitted.
Besides Mr. Mayhew, other artists with Bay Area connections are Ben Hazard,
scholar, activist, artist who just made his transition in December. His piece “Medal
of Honor” sits in a gallery that looks at the notion of heroism. When we think
of “Blackness” as a concept, heroism certainly comes to mind whether that is as
a soldier fighting for a country that does not value one’s humanity or, as Marie
Johnson Calloway (1920-2018) shows with “Crossing Guard,” 1970s, African
American women keep this nation’s children safe. Raymond Saunders’s (b. 1934) “Jack
Johnson,” boxer, a Black man who knocked out a white man – yep – and lived.

Other artists with local ties are Elizabeth Catlett
(1915-2012), whose Black Unity has the emblematic clenched fist carved from
mahogany wood and then on the other side we see Black people. Together we are
powerful. Many patrons do not know to walk around the work to see the opposite
side. Betty Saar (b. 1926), “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima,” 1972, has the
stereotypic troupe as an Nkisi. [Nkisi are spirits or an object, such as a
carving, that a spirit inhabits. – ed.]  Auntie has a rifle in one hand
and a pistol in her lap.

There is much to commend the exhibition. I just noted works
that might not travel given the regional flavor of some of the presentations.

“Manchild in the Promised Land” by Phillip Lindsay Mason – Photo: Gary Sexton

Phillip Lindsay Mason (b. 1939), “Manchild in the Promised
Land,” 1968, shows a little boy seated on a stoop, bullseye on his shirt. I
thought about Claude Brown’s classic story of addiction, poverty and despair.
Above the child’s shoulder we see a Pepsi logo. How does the commercial go? “Come Alive! You’re in the
Pepsi Generation.
” Interesting juxtaposition – the boy-child sits at the
crossroads. Trayvon had Skittles and this child is associated with a beverage. Both
are quarry. In the catalog, another painting by Mason is pictured: “The
Deathmakers,” 1968. Acrylic paint on canvas 128.4 x 128.9. Whereabouts unknown.

In “Deathmakers,” two police as skeletons in their blue
uniforms carry a Black man on a stretcher. An American flag is the backdrop for
the picture, the stars below the dead man’s gurney, the stripes cover the sky,
the canvas sphere shaped within a tight square (72). In the catalog, the work is
juxtaposed with Archibald Motley’s “The First One Hundred Years: He Among You
Who Is Without Sin Shall Cast the First Stone; Forgive Them Father For They
Know Not What They Do,” 1963 (72).

The Motley work looks like something out of the Addams
Family, but it’s no fictional scene here: Confederate flag is draped over a
door with the Statue of Liberty standing next to a Black man hanging from a
tree branch by a rope wrapped around his neck. Dr. King and Kennedy’s faces are
hanging from the tree too like ornaments. Below there is a uniformed Klan
member with a rope in his hand and a hungry hound licking his lips. Perhaps
patrons will leave with a better understanding of the trauma associated in
Black American minds, an often unconscious association, when they see dogs,
dogs everywhere treated better than they. Given more rights to public space
than they.

“Uhuru,” 1971, by Nelson Stevens

A fireman with a hose is walking away from a cross burning.
Signs stating: “We want freedom now!” “Black Power!” “America for Whites!
Africa for Blacks!” Behind him, there are no Black people, just an eerie fog or
mist – more signage. “White Only,” “Colored Only” on opposite sides of the
canvas, which is large. There is cotton, not clouds in the sky. Skulls and
masks hang out in canvas corners. Perhaps this is what hell looks like.

I think this is the same room where Dana C. Chandler Jr.’s “Fred
Hampton’s Door,” 1970, is also displayed. On the door where bullet holes are at
center, there is a star and a label that says: “USA government approved ‘69”
(71). A few pages before, Emory Douglas has an order form for Revolutionary
Posters. Fred Hampton, the slain Chicago BPP leader, front page (62).

Make sure you have time to sit and watch the wonderful slide
presentation with murals from Chicago’s Wall of Respect to Dewey Crumpler’s
iconic mural on the side of the African American Art and Culture Complex,
formerly Wajumbe Cultural Center on Fulton Street in San Francisco. Cleveland Bellow’s
billboard is in the exhibition, one of 10 he painted and put in various
locations in Oakland (1970). On the museum’s website, you can read more about
the artist and what he called “social reality.” The boy’s hands are over his
head and he looks to be smiling – today Black boys with hands raised are
alarming. Funded by the Oakland Museum and the Foster & Kleiser billboard company,
the uncluttered landscape allows multiple interpretations.

There is a screening room (just outside the final gallery
near the gift shop) where patrons can view “Take This Hammer,” an hour-long
film about James Baldwin’s 1963 visit to San Francisco to dramatize the city’s
hypocrisy: oppressing Black people and pushing them out while boasting of its
tolerance and progressive values. Only three years later, in 1966, Bayview
Hunters Point exploded when police killed a 16-year-old and the city was placed
under martial law by “liberal” Gov. Pat Brown. Watts had just gone up in smoke
the previous year. Black resistance was in the air.

View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at Visit her website at throughout the month for updates to Wanda’s
Picks, her blog, photos and
Picks Radio
. Her
shows are streamed live Wednesdays and Fridays at 8 a.m., can be heard by phone
at 347-237-4610 and are archived at

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