THE BLACK POWER MOVEMENT was about strength, community, black identity and self determination. All of these characteristics are present in “Black Unity” by Elizabeth Catlett. Created in 1968, Catlett’s powerful, wood sculpture covers of the latest issue of Artforum magazine.

It’s been a tumultuous couple of weeks at Artforum. Knight Landesman, one of its long-serving co-publishers resigned in the wake of sexual harassment allegations. In response, Michelle Kuo, the magazine’s editor-in-chief stepped down citing her dismay. The remaining staff issued a written condemnation of management’s handling of the accusations and contributors to the magazine penned a statement supporting the staff. Then David Velasco, the editor of Artforum’s website and one of the signatories to the staff rebuke, was appointed to the magazine’s top editorial position.

Amid this shakeup, Artforum released its November issue with Catlett’s potent image of a clenched fist gracing the cover. The work illustrates “Independent Means,” a review of “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” at the Tate Modern. Cheryl Finley, a professor of art history at Cornell University, writes about the London exhibition which is traveling to the United States and is slated to open at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., on Feb. 3, 2018, and will later be on view at the Brooklyn Museum (Sept. 7, 2017-Feb. 3, 2019).

The ambitious exhibition presents more than 150 works by African American artists produced between 1963 and 1983. “Black Unity” is featured in “Soul of a Nation” and is in the collection of Crystal Bridges.

Catlett made the sculpture more than two decades after she moved to Mexico. Rife with meaning, the work conjures many images, including that of of athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists during a medal ceremony at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, a gesture of protest and black unity popularized by the Black Panther Party. On the reverse of the work, two peaceful visages are carved in the style of African masks. The faces and the fist, two seemingly opposing images symbolize both quiet strength and defiant resolve.

In her review of the “Soul of a Nation,” Finley describes how Catlett’s work is presented in the exhibition. “A gallery called ‘Figuring Black Power’ delved more deeply into artists’ varied strategies for activating the political and aesthetic possibilities of representation,” she writes. “Here visitors confronted an enormous clenched fist (Black Unity, 1968), carved in wood by sculptor and graphic artist Elizabeth Catlett. Its defiance was all the more striking in juxtaposition with Faith Ringgold’s nearby painting American People Series #20: Die, 1967, a Guernica-style rendering of the bloody riots of the summer of ’67.”

 


Installation view of “Black Unity” (1968) by Elizabeth Catlett, with “American People Series #20: Die” (1967) by Faith Ringgold in background, at “Soul of a Nation” at Tate Modern. | Video by Bob Ramsak

 

In the exhibition catalog, co-curator Zoe Whitley notes that “Black Unity” is carved from mahogany wood and the “material reads as Black skin.” Quoting from “Art: African-American,” the 1978 book by Samella Lewis, Whitley writes about how Catlett viewed her work:

    “The artist said, ‘Art must be realistic for me, whether sculpture or printmaking. I have always wanted my art to service Black people—to reflect us, to relate to us, to stimulate us, to make us aware of our potential.’ Like Ringgold, Catlett was aware that her work could be interpreted as an act of defiance or potential agression by those unsympathetic to the cause of Black Civil Rights. ‘It might not win prizes and it might not get into museums, but we ought to stop thinking that way, just like we stopped thinking that we had to have straight hair. We ought to stop thinking we have to do the art of other people.'”

“It might not win prizes and it might not get into museums, but we ought to stop thinking that way, just like we stopped thinking that we had to have straight hair. We ought to stop thinking we have to do the art of other people.” — Elizabeth Catlett

Thus far, promotions for the exhibition have featured works by Barkley Hendricks (1945-2017). His 1974 white on white painting, “What’s Going On,” illustrates the cover of the U.S. catalog and a Tate exhibition poster. Another work by Hendricks from 1969, “Icon for My Man Superman (Superman Never Saved Any Black People – Bobby Seale),” is featured on the front of the UK catalog and a CD of music that accompanies the exhibition.

The magazine’s decision to go in another direction and represent “Soul of a Nation” with Catlett’s sculpture makes a statement. “Black Unity” is a striking work that both visually and conceptually conveys the themes of the exhibition.

During the Black Power era and the arts movement that grew out of it, Artforum illustrated its October 1965 cover with an image of the Watts Towers, accompanying a tribute to Simon Rodia by MoMA’s Alfred H. Barr Jr. Earlier this year, a Wolfgang Tillmans photograph from a Black Lives Matter protest in New York’s Union Square made the cover.

But dating back to its inception in 1962, Artforum has on only about a dozen or so occasions, featured the work of black artists on its cover. Scanning the magazine’s archive reveals that the solo appearance of work by African American female artists is particularly rare (Ellen Gallagher 2004; Kara Walker 2007). Given this, while long overdue, the choice to foreground Catlett’s work is even more significant. CT

 

BOOKSEHLF
“Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” features more than 150 works by African American artists created between 1963 and 1983. The catalog documents the exhibition organized by the Tate Modern that will travel to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and the Brooklyn Museum. Featuring essays by co-curators Mark Godfrey and Zoe Whitley, the catalog also includes contributions by Linda Good Bryant, Susan E. Cahan, David Driskell, Edmund Barry Gaither, Jae and Wadsworth Jarrell, and Samella Lewis. For more on Elizabeth Catlett, consider “Art of Elizabeth Catlett” by Samella Lewis; Elizabeth Catlett, Sculpture: a Fifty-Year Retrospective, a monograph of her critically recognized sculpture.