Lorraine O’Grady, Art Is… (Girlfriends Times Two), 1983/2009.

Image: Courtesy MFAH

World-traversing exhibition Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power is celebrating important firsts and lasts as it prepares to open at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston this weekend. The exhibition is the first new art show to be on view since the museum’s closure in March. At the same time, Houston is its last destination on an international tour that started at London’s Tate Modern museum in July 2017.

Wadsworth A. Jarrell, Revolutionary (Angela Davis), 1971.

Image: Courtesy MFAH

While this opening was meant to have occurred back in April, the timing of its arrival has given the MFAH’s showing of Soul of a Nation an added level of importance. The exhibition explores the vast experiences of Black artists living in America during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s through the early 1980s. In a moment where current injustices against the Black community are being discussed both in our city and the entire country, the exhibition couldn’t have come to Houston at a more important time. “These artists were responding to similar issues that happened over fifty years ago,” says MFAH Assistant Curator Kanitra Fletcher. “I think their works will impress upon viewers that there’s a current need for change.” 

Featuring the works of more than 60 Black artists, Soul of a Nation focuses heavily on influential groups from New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. But “there was more going on than in the bigger cities at the centers of the American art world,” she says. “Our city seemed to have been its own arts destination as well.” As the MFAH was the only location in the South showing the exhibition, Fletcher wanted to ensure Houston’s Black artists were represented alongside those primarily showcased in the exhibition, and so the museum’s staff have added a section highlighting these creatives and the legacies they’ve left behind.

John Biggers, The Stream Crosses the Path, 1961.

Image: Courtesy MFAH

These Bayou City artists include John Biggers and Carroll Harris Simms, who established the renowned art program at Texas Southern University in 1949, allowing Black artists from across the country to develop their practices when few schools did during segregation. Works done by their celebrated protégés Earlie Hudnall Jr and Kermit Oliver are also on view. Though every artist carries with them a unique story, there are certain recurring themes that appear throughout as you explore their work. “What you see a lot throughout the exhibition is that artists were really wrestling with issues, says Fletcher. “They were questioning their own roles, I think, during times of social unrest and how to respond to these moments.”

Between the exhibition itself and a variety of online programming and discussions that have been planned to accompany the show, staff at the MFAH hope Soul of a Nation encourages Houston audiences to ask these same kinds of questions. “I hope people think about ways to include and celebrate the art of Black Americans. It’s a rich history that often gets marginalized,” says Fletcher. “I think it’s important for people to reassess and, in many ways, to relearn the history of American art.”

Jun. 27-Aug.30. From $12. MFAH, 1001 Bissonnet St.  More info and tickets at mfah.org