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Zoe Whitley, Curator, International Art, Tate Modern

(Essay read in the author’s voice)

It was 3:00 AM, February 3, 2018, the morning of the opening for the much-anticipated show Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power. The show originated in London at the Tate Modern and literally, in hours, it makes its U.S. debut at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas.

What would it mean to you if you were told that no other major American museum wanted this show… 

Image may contain: textBut one stepped up to the plate when the call was made, a new radical museum interested in breaking down barriers. At the helm, a benefactor that’s filled with passion and the deepest of pockets saw the vision. For all that has been said about Wal-Mart, Alice Walton, heir to this retail goliath is building her own personal legacy by changing lives through art and culture. Not everyone seizes the opportunity and consciously walks past the mob and joins the opposing side for change. I understand Alice it’s, because you’re an owner and owners, see opportunity and make investments where others can’t or won’t. Why would the other museums pass on this show representing so many of the greatest American artists? Was it the cost, could it have been timing or were these black voices too radical for their trustees and white walls?


I find it hard to sleep with so many thoughts dancing in my head. I think it’s a fantastic irony that this show… Soul of a Nation finds itself smack dab in the “heartland” of the country, a Donald Trump red state with no provenance of being a beacon for progress.
It’s the state of my birth, the place where I chopped cotton at age twelve to make some cash in the summer, where my mother labored in factories until she landed a job as a ticket agent, the first black agent at the Greyhound Bus Station in Blytheville, Arkansas. It was the very state of the infamous Little Rock Nine standoff where national guardsmen had to protect black students from white mobs during the height of Jim Crow segregation.
Chances are slim but it wouldn’t surprise me if a few people who were part of those mobs still live in the area, visit this museum and now have to confront (or not) the visual consciousness of the very people that they were on the wrong side of history in disenfranchising.

The liberation of Aunt Jemima by Betye Saar


Has the lapse of time softened their heart any? When they look at the liberation of Aunt Jemima by Betye Saar what will they see a childhood relic perhaps — it’s blackie with a broom? or will they notice the rise of the black fist, black power, the I’m black and I’m proud, the it’s Nation time and oh shit,  Aunt Jemima’s got a gun!

Will their collective memory gaze at Norman Lewis’ America the Beautiful, the 1960 black and white abstract painting so subtle in the depiction of what appears to be a Klan rally, and be reminded of a distant but oh so familiar past … the family legacy perhaps.

A week ago I turned forty-five and a few days ago we jumped feet first into another February — it’s black history month.  It’s the time when we look back and honor those that sacrificed, marched and gave of themselves for us to have a better today. It was a time of civil unrest, dogs, water cannons, assassinations, cities burning and police brutality.  Like many of my peers, I wondered how our parents and grandparents could live under those conditions. Not us, we would say. Well, time has a way of providing perspective.

Today is different in many ways but not so in others. We live in this country where so many are tethered to hatred and stoak its flame with a fresh kindle.

Exhibit A: (Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Ferguson, Eric Garner, Colin Kaepernick and many others)  Exhibit B: (Donald Trump: Make America Great Again)

Soul of a Nation is a blockbuster show — make no mistake about it — and it will continue to reverberate in the lives of all who attended.  These second and third generation masters have been creating an aesthetic all their own while investigating and wrestling with ideas and concepts. They used their art to transform and empower communities. From Chicago’s Wall of Respect to the Watts Tower of Los Angeles.  New York creatives banding together in the spirit of artists collectives, opening gallery spaces and challenging the status quo.  Many had to take to the streets in protest, holding progressives, cultural institutions and America to account for its closed doors and glass ceilings.


detail – Fred Hampton’s Door #2 by Dana Chandler Jr.

Did they see Fred Hampton’s Door #2 by Dana C. Chandler Jr. — (Black Lives Matter comes to mind)

“Superman never saved any black people” – Bobby Seale

Icon for my man Superman by Barkley L. Hendricks

Take a good look at Icon for my man Superman by Barkley L. Hendricks. Arms folded over could easily conjure thoughts of distrust, impatience, disdain or just plain old sick and tired of being sick and tired. It’s how we look at you America, our country tis of thee. 

Superman is a myth like the American dream — blind justice, equal opportunity, fat meat ain’t greasy and Fox is fair and balanced news. We all know that — right? I have no official poll but I’d lay odds on it,  bet the farm,  and go all in.

People are people, we go about our lives taking care of business, mostly wanting to live and let live. We make it to the weekend, the family gatherings, graduations, vacations, cookouts and the arms of our loved ones without incident but its uneasy navigating the promised land (Mississippi Goddam by Nina Simone  comes to mind).

Artwork and title descriptions preach sermons like southern Baptist ministers. Pleading with its congregation — Wake up by Gerald Williams;  Homage to Malcolm by Jack Whitten;  Revolutionary suit, Jae Jarrell;  Black first, America second, David Hammons —  and with eyes wide open see the Portrait of James Baldwin by Beauford Delaney — and remind them I Am Not Your Negro.

#woke #staywoke

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Faith Ringgold and Najee Dorsey lobby of 21c Museum Hotel

This was a gathering unlike any other I’ve attended in the arts, a homecoming.  It was where you bumped into colleagues from every station within the field and talked shop over bourbon.

On an elevator ride, you would make new connections with proud collectors that loaned work for the show. Where community arts activists took selfies and danced with Alice Walton to songs like We are family. It’s where independent producers and programmers explored new opportunities and networked with old friends and hang out with artists both legendary as well as up and coming.

How did we get here?  I ask not in the sense of GPS but in the way of looking at a structure and appreciating the richness of the soil, the foundation, wood frame, plumbing, electrical, roofing and such. The artist, collectors, curators, scholars, gallerists, dealers, auction houses, art fairs and all the trailblazers (too many to list).  Let us reflect and give thanks, not in that we have arrived, and our journey is complete, but that in this very moment, we are present, see value and are refreshed and motivated. For me, this is our Super Bowl and we have only winners here. Regardless of your station, my station or their station in this art game, we share this moment in time … in Arkansas and how about that? Tomorrow is a new day with lots of promise, so let us roll up our sleeves and continue the work of curating a life well lived …

 Najee Dorsey – CEO / Founder, Black Art In America