Norman Lewis, America the Beautiful, photo by Pablo Enriquez courtesy The Broad

There’s a powerful and important exhibition at The Broad Museum in downtown LA. “Soul of a Nation:  Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983” examines African-American art in an age of upheaval and revolution.  With a geographically-designed focus and a good-sized emphasis on Los Angeles artists, the exhibition makes me wonder why it was a British, not an American museum, that organized it (although the Tate Modern collaborated with the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas and New York’s Brooklyn Museum).

We witness the response of black artists to Civil Rights marches, prison riots, multiple assassinations (Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X), murders (Medgar Evers, Emmett Till), political arrests and trials (Angela Davis, Bobby Seale), creation of the Black Power movement and addressing the question of whether there could be just one “Negro aesthetic.”


Several artists’ collectives formed across the country with different purposes, and the show is organized along these geographic lines. The Spiral Group in New York, the Kamoinge Workshop in Harlem, AfriCobra and The OBAC (Organization of Black American Culture) in Chicago, the Assemblage and Graphic arts in LA (Black Arts Council) and the Black Arts Movement that spread from the northeast to the south and west.

This show features more than 60 artists and 145 artworks, including a hypnotic slide show of street art murals that took over walls and sides of buildings across the country touting black pride, black heroes and the conditions blacks faced in American society (and still do). Stop and watch all of them. Twice if you can.

The black and white photographs of Roy DeCarava display his portraits of Malcolm X, John Coltrane, as well as the moody and dark abstract photo images that he made of common street scenes and objects. He formed the Kamoinge Workshop, a Kenyan word that means “togetherness,” which is still active today.


The Spiral Group, comprised of 15 artists, asked the questions, how do black artists respond to the civil rights movement and “is there a Negro image,” and put together just one exhibition, works all in black and white, to explore the individual artist’s response to society. The great collagist Romare Beardon’s studio became their hub. There was but one woman (and youngest member), Emma Amos, in the workshop; this under-considered corner of the art world (black women artists) needs a deeper dive. Her abstract painting gives power to her words, “For me, a black woman artist, to walk into the studio is a political act.”

There’s also a compelling image by Norman Lewis, “America the Beautiful.” Random white scratchings on a black background soon resemble flames from small fires, and upon closer inspection reveal the white hoods and crosses of the KKK. It’s an image that resonates strongly today.

The symbol of black power, the upraised closed fist, is dramatically sculpted in mahogany by Elizabeth Catlett and titled “Black Unity,” aptly placed with Faith Ringgold’s “The Flag is Bleeding” on the wall behind it; this painting looks like the American flag but it’s seeping blood and the stripes are prison bars.


The AfriCobra group features brilliantly colored, psychedelic looking images that come from a group of artists who gathered to discuss how to convey the black image, focusing at first on themes, but later with every artist choosing their own subject. The manifesto of this group declared its aesthetic to be, “Color…that shines, color that is free of rules and regulations, color that is expressively awesome.”

Their style championed “Kool-Aid” colors with text and mosaic-like shapes that create the appearance of light and movement. That they do, beautifully. I was especially drawn to a powerful image of Angela Davis by Wadsworth Jarrell based on a Time magazine photo of her.


Betye Saar and the late Noah Purifoy, both of whom I had the privilege of interviewing in years past, represent the remarkable talents of Los Angeles assemblage artists. Noah, that eccentric artist whose Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum has become a pilgrimage site for many an art fan (myself included), created “Totem,” a piece assembled from the detritus gathered up after the Watts riots.

Betye focuses her work on more personal spiritual and ancestral imagery, informed by today’s headlines, and there’s one entire gallery devoted to her totemic images and masks, and other works throughout the exhibition. She’s simply inspiring.

This is an essential show for anyone wanting to know more about our history and our under-studied African-American art heritage.


Want inspiration? Want a new American revolution? Now on Netflix, “Knock Down the House,” is the story of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who won, and three other women who didn’t, all of whom rocked the political world in the 2018 midterm elections.

By now everyone knows that AOC beat long-time Congressman Joe Crowley, who was on track to Democratic Party leadership, in New York’s 14th District election.

How she got there makes for a fascinating verité documentary, that also covers the spirit that moved, and the people-powered engine that helped advance, the primary candidacies of Cori Bush, a black woman in Missouri’s First District; Paula Jean Sweringen, who ran for Senate in West Virginia; and Amy Vilela, a Latina running for Congress in Nevada’s Fourth District.

I walked out of the screening wanting to become a revolutionary. If everyday headlines and tweets screaming about the current administration feel like an assault on your senses, this movie has the power to motivate and give you hope.


Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, now retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications.

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