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  • Carol Pierre

Thoughts on Soul of a Nation

In August, the Young Historians Project attended the Tate Modern, After Hours: Soul of a Nation, preview available to 15-25 year-olds. The night was enlightening and inspiring, so I offered to record my thoughts in the form of a blog entry. When it came to writing, I felt overwhelmed, intimidated and under-qualified to recount the magnitude of what we had experienced in this exhibition. I wanted to do both Soul of a Nation and the Young Historians justice in my transcription. As a result this blog post was put on hold until I revisited the exhibition in November. This time around I felt more prepared for the density of artwork and was better able to absorb the messages displayed in front of me. My second visit allowed me to re-evaluate my first and revoked in me the passion I had felt that summer evening.

Myself and the other young historians had arrived at the Tate on time, joining a queue that escalated down the Southbank further than I could make out. It was incredible to see such a great number of young people devoting their evening to educating themselves on the culture and politics of Black Power. I felt a sense of pride that our generation were actively engaging with art and an incredibly important part of history, black history.

Black Unity, 1968, a sculpture by Elizabeth Catlett. Photograph: Edward C Robison III/Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art / Catlett Mora family / DACS

I thought of myself as relatively well versed in the history of US Black Power movements, partly because this was the black history we were taught in secondary and further education and also because I have taken a keen interest in this part of history, cultivated through literature and documentaries. This exhibition blew my mind, putting into perspective the microcosm of my knowledge in the face of the wealth of material yet to be uncovered. The descriptions accompanying every work of art, that I sometimes choose to disregard in favour of my own artistic interpretation, were key to understanding the relationship between art and black power movements and how these dynamic collaborations influenced black culture and the black identity in the US.

Elizabeth Catlett’s comment, accompanying her wooden sculpture, entitled Black Unity, a raised fist, one of my personal favourites, read: ‘After I decided to be an artist…I had to believe that I…could penetrate the art scene…without sacrificing one iota of my blackness…my femaleness or my humanity.’ This exhibition was unique in challenging the aesthetic of the art world, which remains a white, middle-class and male space; very reminiscent of the academic realm of history that the young historians seek to change. We aim to do so through bringing to light over-looked, positive histories of black people in the UK. Catlett’s words brought back an idea we had previously circulated in YHP group discussions about our next venture culminating in a mural, one that I maintain could have a potent and lasting effect, and I believe in this idea more so since visiting Soul of a Nation.

Illustration from Grass Roots newspaper

Throughout the exhibition I drew parallels between Black Power movements in the US and those in the UK, which YHP have spent so much time researching. Since joining YHP in October 2016, I have spent several days sifting through archival material; newspapers, photos, pamphlets as well as looking through electronic images and footage from the era. I have helped to conduct four interviews with members of the Black Liberation Front, edited footage from all nine interviews collected, and have continued to read around the subject.

One aspect of the BLF’s legacy I believe to be of particular importance is the role of independent press and the artistic autonomy it allowed. This was mirrored in the work of the US Black Panther Party; Emory Douglas’s Black Panther newspaper illustrations, on display at Soul of a Nation, managed to communicate at once the victimisation and the strength of the African-American population. Likewise images produced for BLF’s Grass Roots newspaper depicted the black British population as united in the face of oppression.

YHP member Carol next to an exhibition panel

Soul of a Nation is too great to condense into one blog entry, as is the work the young historians have been carrying out. I am privileged to have been able to experience an exhibition and be part of an organisation that seeks to promote diversity and implement positive change. I look forward to our continued engagement in the Arts and other intersections of history.

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