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Inside the Tate Modern’s powerful new exhibition of ‘Black Power art’

Babou Ceesay joins art curator Zoe Whitley to discuss the Tate Modern’s powerful new exhibition, which explores how black artists in America sought to define themselves

Shortly before he died, Barkley Hendricks, the Philadelphia-born painter known for his life-size portraits of black Americans, spoke to Zoe Whitley, the co-curator of the Tate Modern’s new exhibition, Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power. ‘I view my contribution as an artist as being American first,’ he told her. ‘We should be acknowledged that, as black people, we are Americans.’

Dual identity lies at the heart of this exhibition; looking at how black artists in the US from 1963 to 1983 sought to define their art at a time when race was a byword for social and political unrest. The issues they faced were also being played out across the pond. This is the background against which John Ridley’s mini-series, Guerrilla, takes place.

Here, actor Babou Ceesay, who plays reluctant hero Marcus Hill, joins Whitley for a conversation about the similarities between the exhibition and the drama…

Inside the Tate Modern’s powerful new exhibition of ‘Black Power art’

Babou Ceesay: What is it about this project that excited you?

Zoe Whitley: What drew me to Soul of a Nation was the chance to give artists a voice to be heard and a platform to be understood. Take Frank Bowling, who was British-Guyanese and came to New York in 1966. He, along with artists like Jack Whitten, Joe Overstreet and Sam Gilliam, revolutionised painting. That’s not an overstatement – yet their names aren’t as well-known as those of their peers: Cy Twombly, Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, certainly not Andy Warhol.
I hope this exhibition is one step towards changing that.

BC: It’s interesting what you’re saying about artistic representation. With Guerrilla, it has become a reflection of whether or not we can get black faces on TV, and even about the definition of what a black face is. There was an outcry about the casting, and actually what came out of that was the lack of opportunity. If we had six Guerrillas being created every year, one alone wouldn’t have to answer every single question.

ZW: In cultural studies, they refer to that as the burden of representation.

Inside the Tate Modern’s powerful new exhibition of ‘Black Power art’

BC: Well, we had a very serious burden of representation. We had to get so much right that the voice of the artist could not be pure. Now, I have a slight aversion when I’m about to create work because I think: “Wait, how am I going to write that character so that I don’t make these people angry?” And “oh, I need to make sure I represent those people”, and then the story, which is what it’s all about in the end, becomes secondary.

It’s not always about orienting your frame of reference in relation to what you’re not. It’s about showing that we have our own strength and culture

ZW: Besides, all of those divisions are man-made. One of the things Mark [Godfrey, her co-curator] and I have noticed, having got to know many of the artists in the show, is how aware they were that since we put up those barriers, they can also be broken down. I’ve spent a lot of time with Linda Goode Bryant, who founded Just Above Midtown, a commercial gallery space where artists could experiment. 

It was an entirely unprecedented idea and people came to her saying “they won’t let us, they won’t let us”, but she refused to be defined by their frustrations. She said they didn’t have to operate by those rules; that there were other contexts in which creative alternatives can flourish. I notice from people like Linda, and from my own experience, that it’s not always about orienting your frame of reference in relation to what you’re not. It’s about showing that we have our own strength and culture, and that we don’t always define ourselves in terms of being excluded from the mainstream.

Inside the Tate Modern’s powerful new exhibition of ‘Black Power art’

BC: You’ve spoken to my soul right there. That applies almost exactly to my world, where the idea of belonging is a double-edged sword. Sure, if you were to sit down and look at statistics on population density and say: “OK, this is the demographic breakdown, so we need this many black faces on screen, this many brown faces, this many women”, you’d see there’s a lack of representation. 

And sure, sometimes you wonder if there’s a road in front of you – you ask yourself, what are they going to do with me now I’ve got this far in my career? But then that makes it all about them, which I have no time for; I’m very busy trying to define what my own road will be.

ZW: That’s certainly something I’ve learned from spending time with Linda: the importance of focusing on something intrinsic rather than extrinsic, and on the richness rather than the lack.

Soul of a Nation was the chance to give artists a voice to be heard and a platform to be understood

BC: You can acknowledge the lack, but you mustn’t become fixated on fighting it, because that can have the reverse effect of putting people off even wanting to give you opportunities. So it’s a fine and delicate line. There’s an element of you that has to convince yourself that you are where you need to be.

ZW: I always say the bravest thing you can do is to say you’re an artist, because you have to say it to yourself first.

Inside the Tate Modern’s powerful new exhibition of ‘Black Power art’

BC: That was a turning point for me: literally saying the words for what I do. It brings a sense of peace to say: “You’re a creative; it’s who you are and what you do, and that’s cool.”

ZW: That’s why, for me, this exhibition isn’t only about the redress of a certain canonical art history, it’s also about saying that these artists are brilliant on their own terms. The Tate Modern is a phenomenal platform for doing that.

BC: And having a public platform like that does matter, especially in the acting world, where there are certain structures in place: we have ratings, ways of measuring success. So when Moonlight won an Oscar, that put an important story out there.

It’s the same with the drama I worked on last year, Damilola, Our Loved Boy, which has just won Best Single Drama at the BAFTAs. True, there were a lot of people who watched it when it first came out, but there were also a lot who didn’t. Since the win, the BBC is going to re-release it and sell it elsewhere, so suddenly you’ve got a 90-minute story about a Nigerian family’s personal tragedy entering the mainstream.

Inside the Tate Modern’s powerful new exhibition of ‘Black Power art’

ZW: For me, it’s really about empathy – finding a lens through which people can connect with headline news in a deeper way. One of the artists in the exhibition, Faith Ringgold, said she felt television news coverage of race riots focused too much on damage to property, not damage to people. She was very attuned to the fact that even if you see broken glass on TV, you don’t get the sense of what it’s like to have it crunched under your feet, and that, on a black-and-white screen, bloodstains on the pavement could just look like motor oil.

BC: There’s always a question of how much violence you show: in Guerrilla, we have the riot scene, with the bludgeoning to death of one of my character’s close friends. As a writer, you have to look at what lies behind the violence – at what’s called the inciting incident.

I always say the bravest thing you can do is to say you’re an artist, because you have to say it to yourself first

ZW: And there are other kinds of violence that are probably as bad, or even worse. We may know an artist like Emory Douglas, who was the Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party, primarily for his imagery of people with guns, but one of the things he did so well was to convey the violence of income inequality. 

People who looked at his early images of overdue rent notices, and women keeping rats away from babies in rooms with peeling walls and leaking ceilings, could see that they weren’t alone and that someone else understood their situation. When individuals feel they are hermetically sealed, they may not be aware of others who live like them or think like them. Artists make us conscious of that in such acute ways.

BC: It enriches people when you take off that hermetic seal. The way shows have done recently, you feel there’s a hint of same old, same old. It’s an opportunity for someone with a different voice to go in and say: “Here’s what I want to achieve”. Right now, I’m sitting down with film-makers in their 20s who have a unique outlook on the world, listening to them and trying to build connections between them and the people who make the decisions to get stuff made. It’s still a crapshoot, to be honest, but I really feel there’s something on the move.

Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power runs from 12 July – 22 October, 2017. Visit tate.org.uk for more information and read the full interview in the Jul/Aug issue of Gentleman’s Journal.

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