'Soul of a Nation' Makes U.S. Debut in Northwest Arkansas

A presentation focused on the vital contributions of black artists makes its U.S. debut this weekend at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville.

The Northwest Arkansas museum's showing of Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power starts Saturday and will continue through April 23, 2018. Admission to Soul of a Nation is $10, but there is no cost for museum members or youth ages 18 and under. 

Developed by the Tate Modern in London, Soul of a Nation shines a bright light on black artists during an important period in American art and history. Featuring the work of 60 artists and including 164 vibrant paintings, powerful murals, photographs and sculptures, the exhibition is a rare opportunity to see era-defining artworks that changed the face of art in America.

Crystal Bridges is one of only two U.S. venues to host Soul of a Nation. Following its debut in Bentonville, the exhibition travels to the Brooklyn Museum in New York. 

The variety of artworks in the exhibition reflects the many viewpoints of artists and collectives at work from 1963 to 1983. Soul of a Nation examines the influences, from the civil rights and Black Power movements to Minimalism and abstraction, on artists such as Romare Bearden, Noah Purifoy, Martin Puryear, Faith Ringgold, Betye Saar, Alma Thomas, Charles White, William T. Williams, and Barkley Hendricks.

“Crystal Bridges welcomes this opportunity to introduce our visitors to artworks created by significant American artists at key moments in our nation’s history, and to tell a more expansive story of American culture,” said Rod Bigelow, Crystal Bridges executive director and chief diversity and inclusion officer. “We look forward to the much-anticipated U.S. debut of the exhibition, and to continuing the dialogue about the role of art in an ever-changing society.”  

The exhibition highlights key events, starting with the March on Washington in 1963, and considers cultural influences such as music, literature, and sports, on the artists of the time. Some artists, galvanized by the spirit of the civil rights movement, created images of solidarity, strength, and resistance, or paid homage to legendary African-American figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Angela Davis, musician John Coltrane, and sports hero Jack Johnson; while others focused primarily on color, form, and concept.

“We’re thrilled to host this exhibition and recognize these artists for their momentous contributions to American art,” said Lauren Haynes, Crystal Bridges curator, contemporary art. “This is a powerful show that reveals the vastly different ways artists respond to the world around them. We hope our visitors will come away, learning about their new favorite artist and the understanding that there’s no one way to be a black artist.”

The exhibition is organized into 12 sections, grouped by movements, geography, galleries, collectives, or the overall exploration of what it meant to be a black artist during this time.

The first section is dedicated to the formation of Spiral, a group of artists who assembled in New York to work out a shared position on what it meant to make art during the civil rights movement, and concludes with Just Above Midtown, a revolutionary gallery with the goal of giving a platform to the Black avant-garde.

The artists represented in the exhibition come from all over the U.S., with rooms devoted to groups such as AfriCOBRA, based in Chicago in the late 1960s, or East Coast Abstraction, which challenged the idea that art had to directly represent black communities, prompting debate about black aesthetics. One room is completely dedicated to Betye Saar, a visionary artist whose work often focuses on mysticism, gender, and race. This includes a mixed media assemblage, Gelede, 1971, recently acquired by Crystal Bridges.

 The Soul of a Nation exhibition will also be accompanied by a full roster of programs with highlights including:

February 28 — Spotlight Talk Panel Discussion: African-American Athletes in Arkansas.  Evin Demirel will moderate a conversation around his book with guest speakers such as former University of Arkansas basketball and NBA star Sidney Moncrief.

March 2 —  Performance Lab: The Last Poets perform a greatest-hits show from their spoken-word albums that inspired politically charged rap groups such as Public Enemy. The night will feature a vinyl signing.

March 15, 22, and 29 — Listening Sessions: Music from the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. Mark Anthony Neal will lead three listening sessions featuring selected tracks from the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s and inspired by the temporary exhibition Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power.

Special tours through Soul of a Nation are planned for Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 1 p.m. for the run of the exhibition. School tours will take place in the exhibition along with adult tours.