Branson BSU Members Experience "Soul of a Nation"

On Saturday, November 9, a small cohort of faculty and student members of Branson’s Black Students’ Union gathered for the opening block party of the de Young Museum’s exhibit, Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, 1963-1983 (previously on display at the Broad in Los Angeles). This exhibit “celebrates art made by Black artists during two pivotal decades when issues of race and identity dominated and defined both public and private discourse.” Unlike the L.A. exhibit, this particular exhibit “focuses on Bay Area artists whose work promoted personal and cultural pride, collective solidarity and empowerment, and political and social activism.”

The significance of this exhibit was not lost on us, nor on the countless others that gathered for its inauguration. Though we were not there for the entirety of the day, there is little doubt in my mind that at some point the Black people present gathered and jubilantly sang Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing, an anthem about the beauty and power of Blackness. As we entered the museum, part of Barbara Jones-Hogu’s 1971 screenprint, Unite, is on full display. The words “unite” are superimposed over raised Black fists. Jones-Hogu was a founding member of the artist collective AfriCOBRA, formed in 1968 in Chicago. Part of the goal of AfriCOBRA was to think about how their art could be in the service of Black liberation movements.

As we walked through the exhibit itself, we experienced the gamut of emotions. There were countless moments where we would look at each other just say, “Wow.” There was an overwhelming sense of pride. The exhibit is a foregrounding of the history, the beauty and power of Blackness, as well as the importance of Black joy.

It ends with Lorraine O’Grady’s 1983 piece, Art is… O’Grady entered a float in the African American Day Parade in Harlem. On one side of the float, she had the words “ART IS…” in big letters alongside a large frame. She and about 15 others walked around the float with empty gold frames asking Black onlookers to envision themselves as art, as worthy of representation, as worthy of exaltation. We carried that feeling as we took a group photo under the emblazoned gold letters reading, “Soul of a Nation.” We were art. We are worthy of representation. We are worthy of exaltation.  

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by Anthony Perry