The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Soul of a Nation at the Tate Modern

There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down
Brothers in the instant replay
There will be no pictures of young being
Run out of Harlem on a rail with a brand new process
There will be no slow motion or still life of
Roy Wilkens strolling through Watts in a red, black and
Green liberation jumpsuit that he had been saving
For just the right occasion
Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and
Hooterville Junction will no longer be so damned relevant
and Women will not care if Dick finally gets down with
Jane on Search for Tomorrow because Black people
will be in the street looking for a brighter day

The revolution will not be televised

—from The Revolution will not be Televised by Gil Scott-Heron

Black Unity, Elizabeth Catlett. This wooden sculpture shaped into the hand gesture of the Black Power movement, can be found in Soul of a Nation, an exhibition I attended at the Tate Modern in London. The back of the sculpture is a relief of two faces. You can find it in the section entitled “Figuring Black Power.”

During my travels abroad this summer I tried to keep an eye out for examples of multidisciplinary storytelling. Near the end of my trip I visited the Tate Modern in London and attended an exhibition about art during the Black Power movement. A short review would simply say that Soul of a Nation is stunning, not only because of the way in which the exhibition mixes print, sculpture, and photography to show the visual culture of the movement’s history, but also how artists illustrated emotion and meaning through their work.

Here’s the text from the opening panel of the exhibition (or watch the trailer):

Soul of a Nation celebrates the work of Black artists working in the United States in the two decades after 1963. During this turbulent time, these artists asked and answered many questions. How should an artist respond to political and cultural changes? Was there a ‘Black art’ or a ‘Black aesthetic’? Should an artist create legible images or make abstract work? Was there a choice to be made between addressing a specifically Black audience or a ‘universal’ one?

The exhibition looks at responses to such questions, with each room devoted to groups of artists in cities nationwide, or to different kinds of art. While showing strong communities and robust artistic dialogues, it also reveals necessary disagreements about what it meant to be a Black artist at this time.

To successfully answer these questions the curators divided the collection pieces in such a way to show nuance within the art of this period, both in style and geography. However instead of having me break down the exhibition in detail I’m going to recommend readers hop over to the Tate Modern’s website (particularly this section called “The Sound of a Nation”). In this digital space the curators successfully re-create, as much as possible, the in-person experience of walking through the exhibition.

My goal for this post is to take a closer look at the ways in which video, audio and art all fit together and added to the narrative of the exhibition.

So let’s start at the beginning where, before you even step into the exhibition space, visitors are treated with four short videos demonstrating the different rhetoric and approaches of the Civil Rights period. These clips range from the speeches and interviews of of Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael, James Baldwin, and Angela Davis. Each clip shows how different the rallying cries were for change and freedom. King, Carmichael, Baldwin and Davis are all recognizable figures, their voices are ones we are already familiar with.

Then right below the video banks is a QR code with a link to a curated Spotify playlist (above). For those partaking in the digital experience, the Sound of a Nation page breaks the list down even more — telling you what track goes in what room. In either case, whether you listened to the music before or after the exhibition, these tracks added another layer of meaning. For example, visitors could find themselves listening to “The Revolution Will Not be Televised” as they examine covers from The Black Panther magazine, or this piece by Cliff Joseph entitled Blackboard. In both cases, music and the new alphabet, we are being told that the world is not as we have been previously taught. Rather, the history of Black people is in the streets, where life experiences bring with it an entirely different vocabulary.

Blackboard (1969), Cliff Joseph. The exhibit label described how Joseph took his “Black ABC’s” around to schools in New York as a teaching tool, asking students to discuss the terms that were familiar or new to them. (Source: Soul of a Nation)

Another example. As I went through the galleries I was particularly struck by one piece in the third gallery called Fred Hampton’s Door 2. Part of the “Figuring Black Power” section this piece by Dana Chandler reflects the artists protest against the murder of a Black Panther Party leader during a Chicago police raid in 1969. The door is a bright vivid green and memorializes the indiscriminate way Hampton’s real door was destroyed. Seeing this while listening to Donny Hathaway singing Tryin’ Times changes the tenor of the piece — especially as I thought about the impact of Hampton’s death on the Black community.

Fred Hampton’s Door 2 (1975), Dana Chandler. This door was painted as a memorial to Fred Hampton whose death brought 5000 mourners to his funeral following his murder. (Source: Soul of a Nation, Exhibit Label)

I said man is always talking ’bout it’s inhumanity to man
But what is he tryin’ to do to make it a better man?
Oh, just read the paper, turn on your TV
You see folks demonstrating about equality
But maybe folks wouldn’t have to suffer
If there was more love for your brother
But these are tryin’ times

—Donny Hathway “Tryin’ Times”

There are many more examples where the music and art, coupled with my knowledge of the history strengthened my understanding of how people reacted the events of the past. My favorite might be the pairing of Duke Ellington and John Coltrane’s improvisational music with the section called East Coast Abstraction.

Trane (1969), William T. Williams. This painting is an example of East Coast Abstraction, a group of artists that were influenced/aware of the work of Pollack and Rothko but also produced art connected to their ideas of Blackness. For William T. Williams this involved connecting his work to improvisational music such as the music of John Coltrane. (Source: Soul of a Nation, Exhibit Label) . What I found interesting was that the abstract art was not as easily accepted by the rest of the Black Art community. Learn more at the Soul of a Nation website.

By intertwining video, audio, photography, and art this Tate Modern exhibition does more than merely transform the narrative of the Black Power movement, rather it adds depth to the story, revealing how the violence, the anguish, and the frustration in the fight for equality affected the Black community.

What Can We Learn

The strength of this exhibition is the way the curators built out the intersections between history, music, art. When I walked through the exhibition I had three hours and my sister and I took our time, reading labels, watching the clips, and talking through what we knew and learned from the exhibition. In the moment I couldn’t listen to the clips directly because I didn’t have the ability to open Spotify, but when I went back through my images and listened to the playlist it added to my own personal experience.

The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972), Betye Saar. The label for this piece described how Saar was appalled by everyday racism and the way you could see it at markets and shops. This particular piece “features the sculpted body of a Black woman that previously was used as a notepad holder.” (Soul of a Nation, exhibit label).

However, not everyone is going to do that. As a public historian I see these pieces as reactions. An event happened in history. It impacted populations and people. How artists and musicians internalized and reacted to these events manifested itself in the decades and years to come through the work they left behind. These might not necessarily be first person accounts, but they still tell us about mood and emotions and the ways in which our past effects our humanity. But not everyone is going to take the time to absorb all the detail the exhibition provides.

What was effective about this presentation was, from a user perspective, it’s simplicity. While the exhibit itself speaks to nuance, the way the museum used common exhibit tools (and one new one, Spotify) also added breadth and depth to a complicated story.

Curtain (for William and Peter) (1969), Melvin Edwards. From the exhibit label – “Edwards sometimes said he used barbed wire for formal reasons as it was a linear material with kinks. However he was also transforming the language of minimalist sculpture by using materials that allude to the history of slavery and incarceration.” The piece is named after William T. Williams and Peter Bradley, two artists that Edwards shared studio space with. (Source: Soul of a Nation)

That being said, I know I’ll be coming back over and over to this concept of time. It’s a precious commodity, and one that is taken up every day by a multitude of other distractions. In my case, I had the time to walk through the exhibition, and listen to the music, and read every label. Then because of this project, and because I wanted to know more, I visited the website to read the online interpretation.

When I talked with Niles Lichtenstein, the co-founder of Enwoven (previously The History Project) he said, “we are in a world that has less time for things. Interesting challenge between [the idea that] we want more thoughtful content, but thoughtful content takes time to create. At the same time, there is more and more content being created and so our mind and our behavior is pretty scattered.”

This is perhaps the biggest challenge for multidisciplinary storytelling – especially as an organization. How do you balance the need for quality content with ROI, especially in terms of solving the “time” issue both as a creator and as a content consumer?

In other words, how do you make high quality content that the consumer will also want? While Soul of a Nation showed me a way in which multidisciplinary storytelling can be done successfully it also gave me something else to think on as I continue on this journey.

Up Next: Not really sabbatical related but a personal rumination on making it to Pompeii and Herculaneum, and what we owe the dead. That’ll be followed by a look at the storytelling of the Harry Potter world (and what we can learn from it). Read more from my sabbatical research project.

Want More on Soul of a Nation?

Review from The Guardian: Soul of a Nation review – the sorrowful, shattering art of black power

Watch this list of videos from Tate’s YouTube Channel

The president of Island Records put together his own playlist in response to the exhibition.

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