Arts, News

Soul of a Nation, America’s Art Dialogue with Race and Civil Rights

“Unite” by Barbara Jones-Hogu


By Rosemary Eng

correspondent and photographer



SAN FRANCISCO — After the shocking attack in Birmingham, Alabama, using fire hoses and police dogs on civil rights demonstrators in 1963, followed not long afterwards by the call for civil rights by the March on Washington for jobs and freedom, 15 New York African American artists debated whether they could have an effect on the civil rights movement.

As self-named “Negro” artists in the American world of art, they identified themselves as the Spiral collective. It was a bold statement in an art world that excluded them.

The newly opened San Francisco exhibit, Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983, looks at the rising sense of American Black Power starting with an examination of the Spiral group.

The exhibition at the de Young Museum features 150 art pieces illustrating how the sense of African American race and identity has evolved. 

The Spiral collective did not rock the art world as did African American artistic expression which came later.

The last surviving member of the Spiral group, Richard Mayhew, attended the exhibition opening November 7. The fact he is 95 years old says much about the Spiral group’s place in African American art history.

Richard Mayhew

For the Spiral group, artistic expression in an art world which did not welcome them into museums and galleries was foremost, not making overt political statements.

Mayhew paints soft landscapes. Spiral artist Norman Lewis’ black and white Processional, in the de Young’s Spiral group gallery, is a black and white abstraction which could be interpreted as a procession of white hoods worn by the Ku Klux Klan (who in 1963 bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham).

Artistic expression of Black Power, a term popularized by civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael, started showing up in the late 1960s with Wadsworth Jarrell’s pulsating acrylic and mixed media portrait, Revolutionary (Angela Davis).

Outrage at the lack of African American civil rights is in the print of upraised fists, Unite, by the late Barbara Jones-Hogu. Unite is the signature image of the de Young museum’s Soul of a Nation exhibit.

In 1968,  U.S. sprinters ( Tommy Smith and John Carlos) raised black-gloved fists during the playing of the US national anthem at Olympic stadium in Mexico City.

Like Jarrell and Jones-Hogu, Gerald Williams is a founding member of AfriCOBRA, African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists, an African-American artists’ collective, founded in Chicago, which unlike the Spiral group is hell-bent on making political and racial-identity statements in fine arts.

Gerald Williams

Native Chicagoan Williams stood before his 1969 work, Nation Time, in the AfriCOBRA gallery of the show, saying “we should think of ourselves as ‘nation’,” because we’re all Americans, albeit Americans with the common heritage of Africa.

His work in acrylic Kool-Aid colors reflects the stylish “cool” of the late ‘60s with African American faces and bold statements of NATION, don’t be jivin, UNITE.

Soul of a Nation was assembled by the Tate Modern in London. It has travelled to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas, the Brooklyn Museum and the Broad Museum in Los Angeles. The final U.S. stop will be the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.

The de Young has expanded its exhibition with work from San Francisco Bay Area artists.

Mike Henderson

Mike Henderson’s 1968 painting, Non-Violence, shows white police officers breaking into houses and beating black occupants, “policemen may think they’re the ones fighting for peace, but peace is just a word that can be used by anybody. I was interested in that contradiction between ‘peace officers’ and their behavior,” said Henderson on the opening tour. Henderson is also a well-known San Francisco area blues musician who will perform at the de Young in conjunction with the show.

As at all the exhibit’s venues, the deYoung has scheduled cultural events for the community until the show ends March 15.

Reflecting the San Francisco Bay Area’s role in civil rights, the de Young is hosting Erica Huggins, leader of the Black Panther Party (for Self-Defense) and Fredrika  Newton, who will talk about the legacy of her late husband, Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party.

The deYoung will have several free admission days during the run of the show:

  • December 14, 2019

Bay Area hip-hop group Souls of Mischief, screening of the group’s documentary Til Infinity: The Souls of Mischief, followed by a panel with the director and performance. 

  • January 11, 2020

Robert Hillary King and Albert Woodfox of the Angola 3 in conversation with artist and activist Rigo 23 explore how art brings awareness to cases of social injustice.

  • February 8-9, 2020

Ericka Huggins, educator, former Black Panther Party member, political prisoner, human rights activist and poet, re-creates her classroom at Oakland Community School in partnership with the Museum of African Diaspora. 

Go to to register for programs. 





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