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Why black power is the real work of art

GOT SOUL: Work by Barkley L. Hendricks features in the exhibition at the Tate Modern in London

I SUPPOSE that's why I married my wife – to kick me out of my lazy bed when the revolution comes. Because when the revolution comes black people will experience a brighter day. But if we sleep through it, the revolution will come and go quicker than Lewis Hamilton around a Grand Prix circuit.

As you can probably tell by my revolutionary language, I have been immersed in the revolutionary art and culture of the black power movement in the 1970s and ’80s via an excellent exhibition at London’s Tate Modern gallery. The exhibition is entitled Soul Of A Nation: Art In The Age Of Black Power and it is vital that you go and see it.

I know, I know – walking around a gallery looking at art for a couple of hours ain’t my cup of tea either. That’s why, like I say, my missus had to kick me out of my lazy bed and virtually drag me kicking and screaming along with her mother and our two daughters for me to even get there.

CULTURE

Like a lot of us, I couldn’t care less about art in the age of black power. I was more concerned about the black power and whatever happened to it and why we ain’t had it and why we ain’t going to get it. And why Malcolm X was slain. And why Medgar Evers was slain. And why Martin Luther King was slain. And why and why and why and why….


THOUGHT-PROVOKING: Artist Benny Andrews' Did the Bear Sit Under a Tree? which is part of the Tate Modern's exhibition (image credit: www.Tate.org.uk)

Like a lot of us, I believed that real revolutionaries ain’t got no time for art and that all these aesthetic forms were the culture of the bourgeoisie and that they only wanted us to be inebriated and indoctrinated by it so that they could keep on cutting off our testicles whilst we were admiring the paintings on their walls.

I think it was Sam-I that told me that. You know Sam-I, the Brixton street philosopher, the rebellious brother of Bishop John Francis, the founder of the London Community Gospel Choir, who you can find on any given day walking the streets of London SW9 or SW2 pontificating about the world, the universe and the white man cutting off your gonads. Yeah, I’m pretty sure it was Sam-I who said that art is just for the black petty bourgeois. I could be wrong.

Either way, it stuck in my mind and ever since I heard that, I made a distinction between the art that hangs on walls and the art of music that we cannot ignore and I concluded that the fault line between black and white was the National Portrait Gallery. And that we don’t go in dem places. Which is true to a certain extent. Let’s face it. But how wrong can one man be?

The Black Cultural Archives in Brixton proved us wrong. Because without curating the art that we achieve so naturally and effortlessly in our style, the way we walk and the way we talk and the way we profile, there is no black history and, daresay, no BLACK.

THE CHICKEN AND THE EGG

What this Soul Of A Nation: Art In The Age Of Black Power exhibition at the Tate Modern does so effectively is to show that art is inextricably linked to black liberation. Like the chicken and the egg, it is hard to tell which is more dependant on the other.

Would there have been a Black Panther Party in Oakland, California without art to inform them of the need to stand firm – armed and ready against police brutality? And would the art of the time have been redundant without the Black Panther Party and Huey Newton to style themselves in the very epitome of ‘afro’ – American hipster cool as they wielded their shotguns brazenly to let the ‘pigs’ know that they weren’t afraid?

POWERFUL

And was it not that image that spread like a virus around the world even to my little nappy headed self back in Tottenham in the ’70s where I wished I could fly to Oakland, California and join up with brother Huey and Bobby Seale and offer my life to the struggle, as did so many young black men and women, not least Fred Hampton who was so brutally murdered by the racist Chicago police as he lay asleep in his bed at the age of just 21 years old?

A recreation of his bedroom door with the scores of bullet holes from police guns is one of the most powerful exhibits in this exhibition.

But the stand-out exhibit for me was Barkley L. Hendricks’s self-reverential self-portrait Brilliantly endowed, where the artist paints a full-size nude in response to a New York art critic’s comments that his art is ‘well endowed’ but a little too slick for its own good. Well, you can imagine what Hendricks did with that in a world where the black man’s ‘endowment’ still holds a morbid fascination for the white man/ woman. But it’s the look on the artist’s face in this self-portrait that makes it a killer artwork that speaks to us all.

I’m not sure that the white people who go to the exhibition really get that look. But it is a look that every black person will get, because it is the look of blackness in a white world, where we get it, we get what it’s all about and we’re cool with it without being cool about it, if you get what I mean. Even if you don’t get what I mean, when you take your whole family down to the Soul Of A Nation: Art In The Age Of Black Power exhibition at the Tate Modern. You will get what I mean, because it speaks to the very heart and soul of who we are as a people and what we have gone through. Especially African Americans who, arguably, have sacrificed the most for us as a people.

Dotun Adebayo is Britain’s most listened-to black radio talk show host. He presents Up All Night on BBC Radio 5 live Thursdays through Sundays on 909/693 MW, The Sunday Night Special on BBC 94.9FM and Reggae Time on BBC London 94.9FM on Saturday evenings. Tune in if you’re ranking!

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