Deeper Discussion

Deeper Discussion

Artists converge on Crystal Bridges


Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville presents its first temporary exhibition of the year starting Feb. 3, and with it, a momentous symposium featuring artists represented in the exhibition.

“Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” assembles works by more than 60 African-American artists, created during the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s in response to the civil rights movement. The collection, co-curated by Crystal Bridges contemporary art curator Lauren Haynes in collaboration with the Tate Modern museum in London, provides an introspective look at the role African-American artists served during the social and political movements of the time, and how their influence has endured today.

Courtesy Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Photo: Edward C. Robison III.
“Black Unity” by Elizabeth Catlett, 1968. Cedar.
“I love that this gesture that has become so hand-in-hand (no pun intended) with the civil rights movement — this idea of the raised fist but carved in [cedar], a very familiar wood that we all know — I think there’s something very beautiful and almost timeless about this sculpture,” Haynes shares.

Though black artists living in specific parts of the country, or working in specific media, have been closely examined by art historians and curators before, Haynes asserts “Soul of a Nation” is a significant contribution to the conversation about the legacy of black artists during this tumultuous time.

“This exhibition is … a very particular time in our nation’s history. And work that was created as people were processing and living that shows the connection that artists are always taking in everything that’s happening [around them] and responding and reflecting to what’s going on,” she shares. “The newest work in the exhibition is close to 35 years old, so I think that lets us see how art is timeless in a way, and [how] things made in a particular moment can still have resonance in the present and allow us to think about where we are and where we have been.”

That dialogue between past and present comes full circle for the museum as it hosts a daylong symposium featuring several artists whose work is included in the exhibition. Conversations and panel discussions with artists, curators of the exhibition and experts on art history will reflect on art, politics, music and community in the age of black power.

It’s no small achievement for Crystal Bridges to be hosting so many prolific artists on one day, for one event, and Haynes and senior museum educator Moira Anderson are excited to see how the artists’ experiences will affect audiences’ engagement with and understanding of the exhibition.

“Most of the artists are prepared to discuss the artworks they have in the ‘Soul of a Nation’ exhibition, but this also provides the opportunity to hear personal stories and direct accounts of what was happening while they were creating the work,” Anderson reveals. In addition, many of the artists are still working and can speak to how their art continues to be responsive to the world around them.

“Any time we bring a living artist in to speak about their work, it ends up creating [such] a richer access point,” she continues. “We’re hoping [guests] will have that opportunity themselves to go back to the exhibition and to examine that work with some of the questions that might arise while they’re listening to the presenters speak.”

Courtesy image
“Black Children Keep Your Spirits Free” by artist Carolyn Lawrence is part of the “Soul of a Nation” exhibition at Crystal Bridges Museum. Lawrence is a featured artist at the museum’s symposium Feb. 3.

One example is the lasting influence of groups like AfriCOBRA in Chicago and the Kamoinge Workshop in New York. Founded in the 1960s, members of both collectives will speak during the symposium about their struggle against inequality and their goals as artists.

​”This exhibition​ is a reflection ​and​ reminder [of] the men and women who picked ​up​ the camera in order to document and reflect on the beauty, style and struggles ​in black communities across the country,” offers Deborah Willis, moderator for the photography panel discussion with the Kamoinge founders.​ “We have seen countless images on black life across the diaspora, and I consider these photographs to be a mosaic of the black experience [as] they expand our consciousness and challenge what we think we know about black life.”

“I think it’s going to allow for much deeper understanding and people are going to see this new dimension to the work,” Haynes adds of the symposium’s significance. “We’ll hear the different perspectives about individual experiences, [which is nice], because I think often we group people together or say, ‘This is the way black artists experienced this time,’ or ‘This is how they made work.’ But this exhibition shows the multiple voices, and with the symposium we’ll get to hear firsthand from multiple people.”


WHEN — Feb. 3-April 23

WHERE — Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville

COST — $10 nonmembers

INFO — 418-5700,

Courtesy of the artist and Roberts & Tilton. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer
“Rainbow Mojo” by Betye Saar, 1972. Acrylic painting on cut leather.
Betye Saar, speaking during the symposium with her daughter on two generations of art, has a whole section in the exhibition dedicated to her work. “She’s had a very long and important career that spans to this day,” Haynes says. “But even in the 20-year period of this exhibition, you can see [how] the work in the Betye Saar room is different than the work in the other sections. It really shows you the breadth of her work.”


Soul of a Nation:

Artists in Conversation

The symposium will take place from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Feb. 3 at Crystal Bridges but is sold out. The museum will be live-streaming the program, with a link available at the day of the event.

After the symposium has concluded, Crystal Bridges will upload the full event to its YouTube channel at a later date.

Organizations interested in being a viewing site for the symposium can register their location at the museum’s website and will receive extra information and a viewing kit.

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