Black Power, With a Bay Area Twist, at the de Young Museum

Barbara Jones-Hogu, 'Unite (First State),' 1969 (screenprint); appearing as part of 'Soul of a Nation: Art in The Age of The Black Power Movement' at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, Nov. 9, 2019–March 15, 2020.  (© Barbara Jones-Hogu, Courtesy Lusenhop Fine Art)

The exhibition Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963–1983 premiered at the Tate Modern in London in 2017, has traveled to the Broad Musuem in Los Angeles, and, starting Nov. 9, will call San Francisco home through March 2020.

It features the works of artists Romare Bearden, Charles Alston, Norman Lewis and Hale Woodruff, who founded the legendary Spiral Group in the mid-'60s. Also included are the works of the AfriCOBRA group (the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists), which originated in Chicago in the late '60s; one of their more famous contributions to the movement is The Wall of Respect. And there's work from the group Just Above Midtown (JAM), created in 1974 by Linda Goode Bryant.

To kick things off on Nov. 9 is a day-long block party during which admission is totally free, with a workshop by San Francisco's own Malik Senefru and performances from R&B, rap and jazz artists like Martin Luther, Vocal Rush, Sistah Iminah, Howard Wiley, Ruby Ibarra and Aneesa Strings.

Tell all this to your average Bay Area art fan, and they'd probably have a hard time guessing the venue: the de Young Museum.

Al Fennar, 'Rythmic Cigarettes, Greenwich Village, New York 1964,' 1964. Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper.
Al Fennar, 'Rythmic Cigarettes, Greenwich Village, New York 1964,' 1964. Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper. (© The Estate of Albert R. Fennar)

How’d the "the most visited art museum west of the Mississippi" (according to The Art Newspaper in 2012) get into throwing an event celebrating black power?

“Last November the de Young hired Thomas Campbell as the new executive director, after a few years of rocky times,” says Francesca D'alessio, the de Young's senior manager of public programs. (Those rocky times include going through four executive directors in the past decade.) But now, she says, the museum wants to turn a new leaf.

“The de Young needs to be rooted again in community," D'alessio says. "After all, it is the city's museum.”

In working to build those bridges, the museum recently launched a free Saturday admission program for all San Francisco residents. In November, the entire museum will be free on select Saturdays—and that's for all folks, not just San Francisco residents.

Barkley L. Hendricks, "What's Going On", 1974, oil, acrylic, and magna on cotton canvas.
Barkley L. Hendricks, "What's Going On", 1974, oil, acrylic, and magna on cotton canvas. (© Estate of Barkley L. Hendricks. Courtesy of the artist’s estate and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.)

Still, "de Young" and "black power" in the same sentence just sounds weird. It’s the same museum where the ever-controversial and influential Dede Wilsey stepped down from her role as president and chair of the board of trustees that oversees the museum (as well as its neighboring fine arts establishment, the Legion of Honor) earlier this year. Wilsey, an investor in the arts and a donor to the Republican party, still remains involved in the museum as chair emerita.

“If you know anything about the de Young, this is the most culturally black thing I’ve seen them do," says Jahi of Public Enemy Radio, one of the curators of the Nov. 9 block party.

Jahi, who's called the Bay Area home for 20 years, tells me that from his own experience and that of the many musicians he knows, "I know a lot of the struggles people face when it comes to getting on a big stage out here.” Often, he adds, local talent will usually only be used as an opening act for national or international artists, especially at major venues like a world-renowned museum.

Aneesa Strings and an upright bass bond at Oaktown Jazz Workshops
Aneesa Strings is among the performers at the de Young's free kickoff party for 'Soul of a Nation' on Nov. 9. (Pendarvis Harshaw/ KQED)

So, when he was given the opportunity, “I just booked all of the great Bay Area artists I could think of," Jahi says. "To see them all on the same bill, on the same day, man! I just wanted to create something that I'd look at and say, 'I'll take the family and be there all day.'”

Beyond the local kickoff, scheduled events during the exhibition's 18-week run are also curated by Bay Area artists and activists. On Dec. 14, Bay Area legends Souls of Mischief perform and screen their documentary film, 'Til Infinity, by Shomari Smith. On Feb. 8, Ericka Huggins, former head of the Black Panther Party's school, leads a workshop in a reconstructed Party school classroom, complete with archival texts and lesson plans. On Feb. 15, Fredrika Newton, widow of the late Huey P. Newton, speaks at the museum about love.

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“I'll be giving a talk that’s really a fireside chat,” Newton tells me over the phone. “This will be a glimpse at Huey and I, our story together—with the theme being love.” (Not only is Newton's talk coming one day after Valentines Day, it’s also two days before what would have been Huey P. Newton’s birthday.)

Mrs. Newton says people can expect “a first person story—this iconic figure was more than a one-dimensional character. He was a family man. When people become iconic, they’re held to an impossible standard, and he gets seen as infallible. This is a human piece of him. That’s the person I knew and loved. I didn’t know the man in the wicker chair. I didn’t even have a wicker chair,” Newton says, with a laugh.

“It also gives us a chance to talk about what the foundation is doing,” adds Newton, mentioning that the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation is currently working to establish a museum of its own, a traveling exhibition and a permanent monument to the Black Panther Party somewhere in Oakland.

Herb Robinson, 'Brother and Sister,' 1973.
Herb Robinson, 'Brother and Sister,' 1973. (© Herb Robinson, Image courtesy the artist)

One thing is sure: there's clearly a hunger for exhibitions and programming like Soul of a Nation. Three years ago, when the Oakland Museum of California hosted a Black Panther Party exhibition, All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50, the museum saw the highest amount of traffic it ever had for an exhibition, with a total of 84,000 visitors.

Let's hope other fine arts institutions take note.

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