Soul of a Nation

Soul of a Nation

Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power

Two weeks ago at Tate Britain Val Wilmer was in conversation with Zoe Whitley, co-curator with Mark Godfrey of the exhibition Soul of a Nation at Tate Modern. It was one of a programme of talks and events accompanying the exhibition.

Val told extraordinary stories of the extraordinary people, writers, musicians, photographers, she has interviewed and photographed throughout her career, including James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Sun Ra and Jayne Cortez. Interviewing James Baldwin she ran out of questions. Bravely she admitted this to him and his response was immediate. ‘No problem, let’s have a drink.’

Val Wilmer Tate Britain Soul of a Nation October 2017 (46)

Val Wilmer Tate Britain Soul of a Nation October 2017 (11)Today I went to the exhibition at Tate Modern. It was fascinating. Some of the issues I remembered, the Civil Rights Movement, the formation of the Black Panthers, Malcolm X, Bobby Seale, but other pieces and artists were completely new to me, as was the representation and imagery of the events. But the anger and the shame that I felt walking through the rooms were as fresh as they were in the 60s and 70s.

The show begins in 1963 with the formation of the Spiral Group, a New York–based collective who questioned how Black artists should relate to American society. They responded to current events in their photo-montages and abstract paintings. Artists also considered the locations and audiences for their art – from local murals to nationally circulated posters and newspapers – with many turning away from seeking mainstream gallery approval to show artwork in their own communities through Black-owned galleries and artist-curated shows. The exhibition uses archive photographs and documentary material to illustrate the mural movement, including the ‘Wall of Respect’ in Chicago.

Soul of a Nation Tate Modern Oct 2017 (88)Soul of a Nation Tate Modern Oct 2017 (89)

Soul of a Nation Tate Modern Oct 2017 (93)

Away from New York artists across the Unites States, in Chicago and Los Angeles, engaged in the Black Art debate.  AfriCOBRA (the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists) in Chicago devised a manifesto for Black Art during this period. In Los Angeles the Watts Rebellion of 1965 had a direct impact on the art being produced there. Back in New York the Just Above Midtown gallery (JAM) was a pioneering commercial gallery that displayed the work of avant-garde Black artists.  Soul of a Nation ‘showcases the debate between figuration and abstraction’.

Taking photos was permitted in the exhibition, so I was able to capture a few of the images and exhibits. I am going to leave the art to speak for itself (accompanied by the excellent and helpful notes provided by the curators). Be appalled, uplifted, shocked, and thrilled. Thank you to the Tate Modern and the curators for producing such a powerful exhibition.

Soul of a Nation Tate Modern Oct 2017 (90)    Soul of a Nation Tate Modern Oct 2017 (94)  Soul of a Nation Tate Modern Oct 2017 (91)    Soul of a Nation Tate Modern Oct 2017 (92)

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Soul of a Nation Tate Modern Oct 2017 (103)    Soul of a Nation Tate Modern Oct 2017 (95)

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Soul of a Nation Tate Modern Oct 2017 (99)Soul of a Nation Tate Modern Oct 2017 (104)

The exhibition closes on Sunday, 22 October, and after that will go on tour to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas and the Brooklyn Museum, New York. A wonderful exhibition, not to be missed.               

Georgie Fame

corn exchange (1)When jazz writer and photographer Val Wilmer  invited me to go with her to a recording of the BBC Radio 4 programme Mastertapes I didn’t know what to expect.  She had told me it was about Georgie Fame and that was enough for me to accept the invitation.
The premise of Mastertapes is that in each edition John Wilson talks to a different musician about a ‘career-defining album’. 
The musician plays tracks from the album but also other pieces, and there are questions and comments from the audience. On Monday the interviewee was to be Georgie Fame, talking about his 1964 album Rhythm and Blues at the Flamingo.

On Monday afternoon I met Val at Maida Vale tube station – we’re old friends from the time I lived down the road from her in Stoke Newington – and we walked to the BBC studios on Delaware Road. There was already a queue of people waiting to go in. But I was with Val Wilmer and so we went in at the contributors’ entrance. As we arrived we met Johnny Gunnell one of the owners of the Flamingo, and an erstwhile manager of Georgie Fame. And behind him came Eddie ‘TanTan’ Thornton, a former trumpeter with the Blue Flames.

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We made our way down to the studio and we were joined by Mick Eve, saxophonist with the Blueflames.

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Extraordinarily for me, we were all sitting on the same row, and it was the front row.  That was because Eddie and Mick were going to play, and Val and Johnny were going to be commenting on the Flamingo in the 60s, the club in Wardour Street in Soho.  I draped my leather over the chair so no-one could take my seat.

The Hammond organ was in place, the technicians were adjusting mics and doing sound tests and the official photographer – with a rather good camera – was taking pictures.


The audience filed in – mainly men, mainly tucking their bus passes safely back into their back pocket, but a few women came, mod girls from the 60s. Richard Williams, journalist, was there, Tom McGuinness from Manfred Mann and McGuinness Flint, and even Martin Freeman.

And then Georgie Fame arrived with his sons Tristan Powell (who plays guitar) and James Powell (drums). At first I didn’t notice him, just a bloke in a blue windcheater and a flat cap, but when he sat at the organ, and began to play, the effect was electric. The old Blueflames stood up and did a quick run-through, playing Humpty Dumpty.

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It was just like being back in the Corn Exchange in Chelmsford, except I wasn’t wearing my brown suede or the unfortunate mustard and black patent leather shoes. The sound of the brass and the sax and of course the organ, made even a bare 50s studio come alive. I wished my best friend Christine had been there – we were always together at the Corn Exchange. We were the ones dancing near the stage, doing our mod jive, then running for the bus home at 11 o’clock, while all the boys jumped on a train or hitched a ride along the A12 to London, going up West to the all-nighters at the Flamingo.
Then the recording started. Georgie talked about his influences and musical friends and colleagues. Colin Green, his guitarist had obviously been a huge influence,

photo(16)but his was a name I didn’t know nor the people behind the making of the album (Ian Samwell, Glynn Johns). But then he talked about the music of Mose Allison, Ray Charles, Prince Buster – the names on the juke box in the Orpheus, the mods’ coffee bar in Chelmsford.
The Blueflames (at one time Billy Fury’s backing group) were re-forming for this event and played numbers from the LP and then they played Green Onions. It was wonderful.
Before the second part of the recording began, Georgie said he needed to say hello to someone he hadn’t spoken to yet, and he walked across the floor to Val. They are old friends and exchanged a few words about old jazz friends. It was a great moment (I was quietly pleased, sitting beside her, that I was wearing my new slouchy snow-cream jumper). Then he walked back to Hammond organ and the recording began. There were questions and answers from old mods and new mods.
At the end of the recording the audience filed out of the studio and those from the reserved seats mingled around among the wires and the mics – someone asked Val about photography, a man from a record company thanked her for the photos, someone else remembered a gig she’d been at and that she comes from Streatham. Georgie’s man came up and said Georgie would like to have a word with her. I said casually, ‘Shall I stay here?’ meaning ‘Let me come too! Let me come too!’ and he said, ‘No, you can come too.’
We went back stage and Val and Georgie continued their conversation about old jazzer friends.

So I have been up close to Georgie Fame. I even managed to casually mention that I had seen him at the Corn Exchange in Chelmsford. Did he remember the Corn Exchange? Of course he did – he remembered it was run by two wrestlers, something I had forgotten or never known.

I am trying to justify the fact that I have no pictures of this momentous event by saying that it would have been inappropriate, naff, not the done thing, to take a photo when we were having something akin to a normal conversation, but the truth is I had no more space on my phone.

The programmes will go out later in the year.