What part did black artists play in America’s civil rights struggle? They reinvented Superman and took a seven-mile artwork through Harlem. As the Tate tackles this tumultuous era with Soul of a Nation, we meet the show’s star attractions

‘All of these slogans are utopian phrases’ … Lorraine O’Grady’s Rivers, First Draft: A Little Girl with Pink Sash Memorizes her Latin Lesson.

Can “the soul of a nation” be defined by artists of its most oppressed group? That’s the ambitious goal of Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, about to open at London’s Tate Modern. Through 150 artworks and more than 60 artists, the show aims to represent the United States’ ethical, conscious and moral spirit – its soul – through exhibits made by (and about) people who historically had less life, less liberty, and less wealth than their fellow white citizens.

Framing the show from 1963 to 1983, the curators were led by how artists of the time were responding to Martin Luther King’s mission and the rising, more militant black power movement. So the exhibition encompasses a wide variety of works of black subjects and/or created by black artists, from the depictions of protest and music in Roy DeCarava’s stunning black-and-white photographs (Mississippi Freedom Marcher, Washington, DC, and Coltrane on Soprano, New York, both 1963) to an afro-wearing, bespectacled brother crossing his arms against a grey background, as well as a red, white and blue frame in Barkley L Hendrick’s 1969 work Icon for My Man Superman (Superman Never Saved Any Black People – Bobby Seale).

In those two decades, people who were artists, activists, and both, did a great deal to mark blackness as an identity: the Black Panthers organised to stop police brutality, while also creating free breakfast and community medical programmes; Nina Simone released To Be Young, Gifted and Black; and Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised black power fists at the 1968 Olympics. And during these years, artists such as Lorraine O’Grady were asking: what is art, who is it for? Taking their work to the streets to insist, as William T Williams put it, that “art need not be in a temple”. Art could be everywhere.

ense of dread … Some Bright Morning, 1963, from Melvin Edwards’ Lynch Fragments series.

In a white walled room of the Alexander Gray Gallery in New York, Melvin Edwards, now in his 80s, is remembering what it was like to be among the first African American sculptors to display large-scale works in such venues as Manhattan’s Whitney Museum of American Art. On the wall are three of his Lynch Fragments, a series of sculptures, decades in the making, that will feature in the Tate show.

Eeach Lynch Fragment is unique yet in conversation with the others. The smallsculptures contain various recognisable items: a hammer, a link of chains, a knife blade. On their own, they convey a sense of dread but, when put together, the sense of violence is hugely amplified. Tate will show Some Bright Morning, a 1963 fragment named after an African American community that was threatened with the phrase: “If you people don’t behave, some bright morning we’re going to come and take care of you.”

While the protrusionsconjure up images of enslavement, Edwards wants people to think beyond literal chains, since they only really existed symbolically. “Most slaves never were chained,” he says. “You’ve got 500 slaves and you’ve got to make a set of chains for each one? The owner wouldn’t have wanted to spend that much money. And they’re going to be able to do about a tenth of the work dragging these chains. They were restrained in other ways.”

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