‘We were always here’: Blockbuster ‘Soul of a Nation’ comes to de Young Museum

Datebook, Charles Desmarais

The latest edition of the catalog for “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power,” the blockbuster exhibition that opens Saturday, Nov. 9, at the de Young Museum, features an extraordinary cover image.

A reproduction of a now-famous painting by Barkley L. Hendricks dated 1974, it depicts five young African Americans striking casual, supremely confident poses. Set against a clear white background, four of the figures wear impeccably white suits and large hats, fashionable for the day. The fifth, a shapely woman, is nude.

The title of the work, “What’s Goin’ On,” is an obvious reference to Marvin Gaye’s popular protest song and subsequent album, released three years earlier. Significantly, though, it has little to do pictorially with the song’s images of war and brutality, love and hate. If the song title implies a question, the picture is the opposite. It is, manifestly, a statement, in the plainest of terms, that black is not only beautiful but it is real, of such substance that it effortlessly pierces the feeble white atmosphere from which it emerges.

The metaphor of black power is impossible to miss.

There are other striking images in the show, but none so soundly delivers the implicit argument of “Soul of a Nation”: that African American art has, and always had, a significance apart from any meaning the so-called mainstream white culture might have designed for it.

Organized by London’s Tate, the show comes to San Francisco as part of an extended tour that started in 2017 and will, when it ends, have traveled to six major museums. It has been hailed as a signal of the museum establishment’s long-awaited acceptance of black artists into the canon of American art history.

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Photo Credit: Romare Bearden Foundation, Artists Rights Society, NY

Nov 7, 2019