If you’re in London in the next week, and you’ve not yet visited the Soul of a Nation exhibition at the Tate Modern, let this be encouragement to see it before it closes on the 22nd. If that’s not you, let this be a way to enjoy some excellent art. Content warning: some of these images are violent. Super important and well done, but potentially disturbing. Copyright note: I believe this falls within the Tate’s photography requirements of “personal use.”
The Soul of a Nation at the Tate Modern is one of the most challenging, upsetting, and thrilling art exhibitions I’ve been to in years. Before you even enter the exhibition space, you can watch snippets of speeches from five leaders of civil rights, Black Power, and liberation movements (Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Stokely Carmichael, and Angela Davis). You see Stokely responding to MLK and Malcolm X, James Baldwin teaching Europeans about American racism, Angela Davis taking a broad and pragmatic view of how the struggle fits in her life and she in it. This introduction to the exhibition is small but important. It situates us firmly within the black community in the United States in the 1960s and ’70s. We’re not hearing what white people thought about the issues or what approach white people thought black people should take; we’re hearing how black people had this discussion amongst themselves, and the myriad approaches they took to dismantling systemic racism and building a better world.
Once you enter the exhibition space, with the voices of cultural and political leaders still ringing in your ears, you immediately meet the artistic leaders. Let no one tell you that art and politics don’t interact: the Spiral artistic group was formed in direct reaction to the March on Washington in 1963, so members could discuss how to represent black folks in their art, and how to fight political battles in their art.
My favorite thing about these two paintings by Norman Lewis is how they talk to one another. “America the Beautiful” on the left is a collection of white figures on a black background, which as you look more closely you see is a KKK rally, taking over the canvas and popping up almost randomly, like you never know where they’re lurking, intending harm. “Processional” on the right is a collection of white figures on a black background, which as you look more closely you see is an energetic crowd of people marching forward. It’s the Selma march, and as the museum placard suggested, the gradually widening scope of the view of figures is like a flashlight leading through the darkness. Two similarly simple approaches, two radically different results.
The next room cleverly combined art of the Black Panther group (mostly from their paper but also from posters they mass-produced to reach more people) and murals painted in black neighborhoods in cities across the United States — this room was “art on the streets,” art that was made to inspire and fire up. Some of the murals have fallen into disrepair, but I know I’ve seen some — or some like them — on the south side of Chicago, although I can’t recall if I’ve seen the Wall of Respect, one of the first murals to go up during this time.
Some of the stories behind the pieces I was familiar with, and others were new to me. I did not know about Fred Hampton — Black Panther activist shot to death in a raid by Cook County cops after being drugged by an FBI informant. I did not know that during his trial for conspiracy and inciting a riot as part of the Chicago Eight, Bobby Seale was ordered bound and gagged in the courtroom by the judge because the judge didn’t like his outbursts. (Also Seale’s later prison sentence was not for the original charges but for contempt charges the judge applied during that trial.) Archibald Motley, who painted “The First One Hundred Years” over a ten-year period, never painted again after he completed this work.
Other groups and collectives formed, including the Weusi collective, the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, AfriCOBRA, Smokehouse Associates, and many others. A few of the rooms in this exhibition feature work from just one or two groups, so you can get a good sense of the general approach and what they focused on.
A room full of collage, sculpture, and found object art had some truly chilling pieces. Betye Saar’s work is deeply affecting — titles that seem carefree like “Sambo’s Banjo” and “I Got Rhythm” are attached to mixed-media punches to the gut. Each tiny item in each piece adds layers of meaning — the little crucifix at the bottom of a lynched man in “I Got Rhythm,” the toy gun nestled in the top of the banjo case so Sambo might have a chance of resisting and surviving in “Sambo’s Banjo.”
Walking into the AfriCOBRA room midway through the exhibition was like walking into an air-conditioned building after walking for miles in summer heat, a relief. The AfriCOBRA manifesto was explicitly hopeful: they wanted an aesthetic of “rhythm,” “shine,” and “color that is free of rules and regulations.” They made works to lift people up, and they reprinted them for wide distribution, so that black people all over the country could be inspired by positive images of black folks. Which is not to say that this isn’t itself a challenge, because it certainly challenges the white supremacist myth that black people are inferior and not worth celebrating. And in fact most of the art was explicitly political as well, like the work by Gerald Williams reminding people “don’t be jivin” or Wadsworth Jarrell’s portrait of Angela Davis, made up of words from her speeches radiating from the center of the painting. Make no mistake, representation on your own terms is a powerful form of resistance.
One of the debates within the black artistic community at the time was whether abstract art could be considered part of the movement as a whole. Abstract artists argued that because the art was theirs, and they were black, it was therefore part of the political black art movement. It’s like improve in jazz, William T. Williams said, and then he painted Trane, named for John Coltrane, which I think is an excellent way to win an argument.
There was a room on photography and how different ways of developing film brought out different skin tones in the black subjects; there were connections to the wider Black Arts Movement and samples from poets who collaborated with visual artists; there were many reminders that one of the constant themes in black liberation movements of 50 years ago was an end to police brutality — for all those who want to talk about “how far we’ve come”; there was a Spotify playlist you could listen to on your headphones during your walk around the exhibition and which I listened to after, getting pumped up to Gil Scott Heron as I strode along the Thames. There was so much to see, read, and absorb. Much gratitude to the artists who fought the good fight and explored their own creativity during the 1963-1983 period explored here, and beyond.
Have you been catcalled walking down the street? Called “sweetheart” at work? Had to plaster a smile on your face while clients hit on you because “you’re in a customer-facing role”? Forced yourself to laugh along with the taxi driver because it’s dark out and he knows your address? Walked the last few blocks home with your keys out, grateful your mom taught you this but wishing she’d never had to?
Have you said “I have nothing to wear” not because ladies are ditzes who buy too many clothes, but because you’ve still not found that magical outfit that will protect you from the leers and comments and gropings of strange and familiar men in the workplace, the subway, the bar? Have you worn what you wanted to anyway, and tried to not think “you knew what you were getting when you put this on” when the leers and comments and gropings appeared?
Have you tried to turn the times you’ve been sexually harassed into comic stories – you have to laugh or you’ll cry? Have you kept the incidents that are too serious to be turned into a funny story to yourself?
Did you at one time believe them when they said you were too fat or too ugly or too something for anyone to want to assault you? Did you feel somehow doubly betrayed when they assaulted you anyway?
When you were assaulted, did you immediately remind yourself that others have it much worse, and that comparably what you experienced is not so bad? Did you not tell anyone for some time? Did you find it hard to name it to yourself?
Have you noticed that I haven’t even used the word “men” once yet? Did you not notice because there’s no need to name the thing that is always there, the menacing presence that hovers on the periphery of your daily movements, and all too often forces itself into the center of your life?
Are you deeply distressed that “a menacing presence” is a valid way of thinking about men, since statistically speaking they are the ones who harass, beat, rape, abuse, murder? Do you wish there were some failproof way to know if any man you meet is going to be one of those ones? Do you have many wonderful men in your life? Do you wish you had more?
Are you wondering why more of the men in your life aren’t speaking up today? Wondering why you don’t see them taking concrete steps to intervene when they see sexual harassment, to call their friends out when they say something sexist, to take a friend aside and ask if they realize that what they’re doing is hugely harmful? Wondering why men aren’t proactively suggesting rigorous (not checkboxes-style) sexual harassment training at work? Why they’d still rather make a joke than a real change in their behavior?
Are you reading this and feeling unseen and unknown, because you are a man or non-binary person who has experienced sexual harassment and assault? Or because a woman is the one who assaulted you? Or because your experience includes additional layers of abuse involving race, religion, ability, sexual orientation, gender identity, class?
I see you. I believe you.
Are you angry that even though we’ve said it over and over again, we’re being asked to say it again? Are you furious that it is on the survivors and victims to say something, that the harassers and abusers and rapists can continue on with their day unaffected – which is always true for them anyway? Are you livid that the norm is for their lives to be wholly unaffected by what they have done to you, while you’ll carry it with you for forever?
Are you heartbroken by the sheer number of people who are posting today – and from such a wide swathe of your life? Have you seen your former teachers post, the priest of your childhood church, parents of your friends, community elders, not to mention what seems like every single one of your peers? Are you holding them all in your heart, including those who don’t use social media or chose not to post but definitely have experienced sexual harassment and assault?
Are you holding a bit of hope that maybe this time, more HR departments will fire the harasser instead of retaliating against the whistleblower, more colleges will expel the rapist instead of punishing the victim, more people will say “we’re on her side” instead of “I see both sides and I’m sure he’s sorry,” more men will do the hard work of holding each other accountable instead of looking away and feeling guilty? That maybe more people who have felt alone now feel less so?
Look up, because you might see something wonderful. If I were to make one of those dreadful inspirational posters, that’d be the caption and the photo would feature one of the ceilings of the National Palace of Sintra. Because “look up” might be bland life advice, but it’s just plain practical when it comes to this palace.
Sintra, a hilly region slightly northwest of Lisbon, has been used by rulers for centuries as a place to establish power and build pleasure palaces. There’s nothing left of the Al-Andalus building that was once here (luckily the so-called Moorish Castle up the hill is another UNESCO site you can visit). What remains today is a mostly medieval and Renaissance construction, with decorations and furniture ranging from the 15th to the 19th centuries.
There’s a lot of mention in the castle of the Manueline style, which looks vaguely like it’s from the Tudor period (because I live in the UK and most of my sense of this type of architecture comes from here, Tudor is my reference point), and indeed the style is named after King Manuel I, who reigned 1495-1521, overlapping with Tudors Henry VII and Henry VIII of England.
I love when you can see different fields directly influencing one another in specific historical times and places — as in, this type of literature is directly related to the political turmoil of a time, or in this case, this type of architecture is directly related to the major expeditions of exploration Portugal was making at the time. Taking elements of the Gothic style, architects in the Manueline style added influences from places Portuguese ships had ventured to — especially India (which included Islamic elements, and of course the previous rulers of Sintra were Arab Muslims, the Moors, and so it’s all intertwined). The Manueline style also incorporated elements that referenced the Age of Discovery directly, including ships, anchors, items from the sea, and botanical flourishes. (This is especially apparent in the monastery in Lisbon — stay tuned for a post on that!)
Legend has it that King João I decorated the Magpie Room as a public rebuke: his wife caught him cheating, and he had as many magpies as there were women at court painted on the ceiling of this room, not because he felt guilty but because he wanted to chastise the women who gossiped about the affair.
Most of the rooms in the palace are by now known according to what graces their ceilings: the Swan Room, the Mermaid Room, etc. One room, however, has the most boring name but the most magnificent ceiling: the Coats-of-Arms room. Manuel decorated this ceiling with the coats-of-arms of the most prominent 72 Portuguese families at the time — although a couple hundred years later, one of those was removed, because members of the Távora family were convicted of plotting against the king. Oops.
The National Palace of Sintra was in use by the Portuguese monarchy up until the founding of the Republic of Portugal in 1910, at which time it became a national monument. A few decades later it was restored, and in 1995 it was listed as a World Heritage site by UNESCO as part of the Cultural Landscape of Sintra. It’s open to visitors who want to catch a glimpse of royal splendor — even if it means getting a neckache from looking up.
Porto is one of the loveliest cities I’ve been to. Colorful buildings topped with orange roofs tumble down a hillside to the Duoro River, upon which rabelos and modern boats bob gently. The Ponte Luis I arches over the water, reaching from the main city to the many port wine cellars of Vila Nova de Gaia. When I was there, the sky was never anything but blue, and the river sparkled in the sun.
I arrived near midnight and took a cab to my Airbnb. The driver was chatty, and he made a great joke. He asked where I wanted to visit, and I mentioned the bridge and the cathedral. He said something about a palace and I said that sounded good. “Well it’s really another kind of church,” he said, and chuckled. It wasn’t until the next day that I realized he was talking about the Palacio da Bolsa — the extravagant stock exchange building from 1850. Another kind of church, indeed.
I had planned to visit the Sé cathedral, but as I arrived, a police escort guided a line of black cars out to the main road, and I found the cathedral closed. When I inquired at the tourist kiosk, they said that the bishop had died just a few hours before, and as the building next door to the cathedral is the bishop’s house, everything would be closed for at least the rest of the day. As I heard a tour guide spin it to his charges, “You’re here at a historic time!”
The port wine cellars are the places that port is actually made. The grapes are harvested in the Duoro River valley and made into wine (as with champagne, you can’t call the drink port unless the grapes are grown in this specific area), then immediately shipped downriver to Vila Nova de Gaia in Porto. The fresh wine is fortified with brandy (which all the port wine companies make themselves), and then it’s fermented either in giant vats (for ruby wine) or smaller oak barrels (for white and tawny wines). Some of the barrels are later re-used by Scottish companies to age whiskey in. Port wine is about 20% alcohol and sweet; you drink white as an aperitif (before dinner), ruby with dessert (especially chocolate), and tawny as a digestif (to end your meal most perfectly).
It’s a relaxing city to sightsee in, as most of the places you want to visit are pretty close to each other, and any time you have to climb a particularly steep hill, you can stop off for a quick drink at a cafe to recover. The way you wander about town is integral to the experience of being there — climb to lookouts around the city, walk across the bridge on the upper level for the views, glide along the Nova de Gaia side of the river in the teleferico, take a boat tour under the bridges of the city.
Enjoy this short video I compiled of Porto from various points around the city.
Have you been to Porto? What was your favorite part?