In 1972, Betye Saar created the assemblage piece The Liberation of Aunt Jemima for a group exhibition at a community center in Oakland, CA, the birthplace of the Black Panthers. The work, in which Saar set out to turn racist imagery into an African American heroine, became an icon of the Black women’s movement and, nearly 50 years later, is still renowned for its radicality and inventiveness. Saar was part of a cohort of artists responding to and amplifying the ethos of the Black Power movement.
In the ‘60s and ‘70s, the Black Power movement and the revolutionary voices that led it profoundly transformed America’s cultural landscape. Visual art, along with music, literature, and fashion, was at the vanguard of this historic cultural shift. Along with Saar, artists like Norman Lewis, John Outterbridge, Noah Purifoy, and Lorraine O’Grady created provocative, distinctive works of painting, photography, sculpture, and performance art that embodied the ethos of the movement.
In 2017–2019, the landmark traveling exhibition Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, shone a light on Black artists from the early 60s to the early 80s. A new expansive book conceived as a companion to this exhibition compiles hundreds of important texts from the era reflecting on the influence and power of Black art.
The Soul of a Nation Reader collects over 200 of these writings, many of them rare and out-of-print, offering a powerful record of the positions taken by figures including Amiri Baraka, Frank Bowling, David Hammons, Elizabeth Catlett, and Linda Goode-Bryant. This watershed anthology provides access to these materials for the first time.
On September 9, the book’s editors, Mark Godfrey and Allie Biswas, will join Getty curator LeRonn P. Brooks for an online discussion about this cultural dialogue. They will explore the powerful ideas put forth by artists and writers who confronted questions of Black identity, activism, art, and social responsibility during the Black Power era.
This event is connected with the Getty Research Institute’s African American Art History Initiative, which focuses on the postwar art and cultural legacy of artists of African American and African diasporic heritage to provide a more robust and accurate history of American art. Many of the artists featured in the exhibition and the book have been interviewed by Getty curators for the GRI’s oral history program. You can listen to their stories here.