Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, at the Tate Modern, London, through October 21, 2017
The Holocaust and Comics, Shoah Memorial, Paris, through October 30, 2017
One drew huge crowds to the Tate Modern in London.
The other flew a bit under the radar at the Shoah Memorial in Paris, although it was no less memorable – and, on November 10th – the 79th anniversary of the Kristallnacht – well worth remembering. (Listen here to a powerful interview on the CBC Radio Program The Current with Toronto historian Max Wallace discussing his new book In the Name of Humanity).
Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, which closed a couple weeks back at the Tate Modern in London – before undertaking a U.S. tour in 2018 – took a close up look at the emergence of the black power movement in the U.S., from the time of the March on Washington until the early 1980’s.
It’s a spellbinding multi-media exhibition that chronicles the rise of the Black Panther movement, MLK, Malcolm X, and the emergence of black consciousness at a time when there was no Twitter, no Black Lives Matter and far less access to the media gatekeepers of the day.
Pre-digital points of resistance
Before there were digital media, there was dozens of points of resistance in various African-American neighborhoods across the U.S. throughout the 1960’s and ’70’s, in cities such as Oakland, Chicago, Detroit, Harlem, Watts, Roxbury in Boston and all through the American south.
Rather than pixels, this movement sent its message through a mashup of painting, sculpture, collage, music, public art, and publications such as the newspaper published by the Black Panthers.
“I think the show provides a whole array of American artists who should be part of the art curriculum,” said co-curator Zoe Whitely in a New York Times article by Roslyn Sulcas. “It shows that black artistic culture at that time was as varied as any other culture. It’s not ‘black’ art, it’s a range of practices.”
Some of the work is overtly political. Some is aspirational, portraying ordinary American lives doing mundane American things.
Some, such as Faith Ringold’s 1972 lithograph, The United States of Attica, is a detailed, devastating chronicle of human violence throughout history that feels as relevant today as it must have when she created it 45 years ago.
Some of it was created to counter the negative images of African-Americans presented by mainstream media, back in an era when few African-Americans had access to the mainstream media, let alone an ability to shape their own collective national narrative.
There are familiar names – Romare Bearden, Andy Warhol, Wadsworth Jarrell – alongside ones I didn’t know at all, but who created remarkable work – people like Betye Saar, Herbert Randall, and Beuford Smith.
Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power is scheduled to be exhibited at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas (Feb. 3 – April 23, 2018) and the Brooklyn Museum of American Art (September 7 – February 3, 2019).
Meanwhile, at the Shoah Memorial in Paris, The Holocaust and Comics takes a closer look at the representation of the Holocaust in graphic comics, mainstream comics and in popular media – particularly in its absence in the years immediately following the war.
“For reasons to do with the politics of national remembrance of the War – politics that vary greatly from one nation to another – the extermination of the Jews became a taboo subject,” the show’s notes state. “It was certainly off-limits for American superheroes (immediately following the war).”
However, eventually, the comics came around.
“Comic-book authors cautiously felt their way through the Holocaust, at times making mistakes, at others brilliantly succeeding,” it says.
It’s a fascinating – and harrowing – show, particularly in its identification of the moment the popular culture finally pivoted and began to actually tell the story of the Holocaust.
That was the popular, Emmy Award-winning 1978 NBC mini-series Holocaust, which the exhibition suggests made popular cultural gatekeepers more willing to address an event that was more or less a pop culture no-go zone in the 30 years following the end of the Second World War.
It may have taken Roots smashing TV ratings in 1977 to convince the gatekeepers that there was ratings gold to be found in digging into some of history’s darkest corners, leading to Holocaust in 1978.
The Holocaust and Comics takes us on the pop culture journey from Holocaust on NBC, to Art Spiegelman’s Maus, all the way up to Bryan Singer’s film adaptation of The X-Men (2004), in which comic book artist Chris Claremont makes Magneto a Holocaust survivor.
(There are also plenty of examples of comics published in France and Belgium in the 1950’s and ’60’s that discuss the Holocaust – such as Krigstein and Feldstein’s 1955 graphic comic Master Race, but nothing that broke through in a mainstream way.)
Early in the 1980’s, Art Spiegelman created Maus, which is also cited as a major breakthrough moment.
“The groundbreaking publication of Maus paved the way for many other comic books about the Holocaust,” said the exhibition notes. “Thanks especially to graphic novels, comics, now fully grown up, have become an important vector of memory at a time when the number of testimonies, memorials, histories and educational works about the Holocaust is rising.”
The act of remembering
Both exhibitions were a reminder of what museums can do, and which Nobel Prize winner and Holocaust survivor, the late Elie Wiesel always preached: the crucial importance of the act of remembering.
I remember seeing Wiesel when he visited a Winnipeg synagogue around 1984, and how mesmerizing he was as a speaker, talking about the need to bear witness and to remember because there’s nothing more psychotic than a culture that forgets the past.
“To forget the dead,” he wrote in Night, his 1960 memoir, “would be akin to killing them a second time.”
Links between historical shows and contemporary events
Now, more than 30 years later, Wiesel couldn’t seem more prescient.
“We didn’t anticipate that there would be such clear links between our show and contemporary events,” said Soul of a Nation co-curator Godfrey, in the same Times article by Sulcas. “A number of our visitors have remarked on it; it makes it even more shocking that some of the dreams of the civil rights leaders haven’t been realized.”
Museum exhibitions are also a wonderful antidote to all the ways in which digital culture fixes us in the present moment.
It seems as if the internet is well on its way to enabling the whole planet to experience life in real time, second by not-so-fascinating second.
That can be dynamic and revolutionary. It can also be a form of cultural insanity or amnesia – just try Googling something that happened before 1999 sometimes.
And if you can’t get a Google search result from the past, did it really happen?
Thankfully, for these two excellent exhibitions, the answer is an unequivocal – and unforgettable – yes.