The Fight for Empowerment – ART REVIEW by Lauren Holder

Featured image credit: Shepard Fairey, 2007, Power and Equality, screenprint

Lauren Holder is a recent Psychology graduate from the University of Birmingham. Currently, she is training with the NHS to become a mental health social worker alongside completing a masters in Social Work through the University of York. 

1963, the height of the revolutionary civil rights movement in the United States of America. The fight for equality, rights, and integration. It’s here that the show begins. Housed at the Tate Modern in London, the suitably named Soul of a Nation exhibition aims to demonstrate the influence of black artists in such a revolutionary period, collating art pieces from 1960 to 1983. Consisting of powerful paintings, inspirational murals, and thought-provoking posters, each piece reflects a different response to the social, political and cultural issues.

Carolyn Mims Lawrence, 1972, Black Children Keep Your Spirits Free, acrylic on canvas

As one wanders through the exhibition, with pieces as dark in colour as their underlying themes, room five shines in the distance. A room filled with an aesthetic based on rhythm and colour, free of rules and regulation, aiming to represent the vibrant experiences of life in America through African art. It is known as afriCOBRA. Standing for African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists, the group was established in Chicago in 1968 by Jeffrey Donaldson and Wadsworth Jarrell. It aimed to reflect the shared needs and aspirations of black African American citizens, conveying the experiences that shaped identities and strengthened communities. This powerful artwork, understandable and accessible to all, exists for one sole purpose – to empower.

Empowerment can be defined in many ways. However, it is generally understood as the process of gaining more freedom around choices and actions. Through exercising choice, we can gain power and control over our lives and the lives of our communities. When empowered, people are better off in many ways, with research demonstrating improved levels of self-efficacy and self-esteem, as people believe in themselves and their abilities, and see themselves as participating in society with purpose. Marc Zimmerman stated in his work Empowerment Theory that empowerment is made up of three components, combining to give a person the necessary skills to influence situations on a global scale and produce social change.

The intrapersonal component considers how individuals think about themselves, for example their level of control in situations and their mastery of skills. Assessing a situation enables someone see what facts or information give them power. This empowers them to believe they have the capability to influence a situation. The interactional component considers how well people understand and relate to their social and political environments. It also looks at the knowledge of skills needed to produce social change – for example, having the knowledge of how systems are controlled in their country, their position within society, and skills such as problem solving. These skills allow individuals to become independent and gain further control over their lives. This empowers a person to understand how the system works. The behavioural component refers to actions that are taken to directly influence outcomes on both an individual and a global scale – such as taking part in a protest and standing up for rights. This component empowers a person to engage in behaviours that exert control in various contexts.

Benny Andrews, 1969, Did the Bear Sit Under a Tree?, collage and oil on canvas, courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York

Throughout the exhibition, and in afriCOBRA’s work in particular, there is a consistent theme of overcoming hardship and achieving equality through the process of empowerment, particularly through engaging in behaviours to promote social change. ‘Did the Bear Sit Under A Tree’, by Benny Andrews, shows a black man fighting the American flag, standing up for his rights and fighting against his country. The artwork demonstrates how the black community showed their influential ability and strength in their identity whilst also aiming to promote empowerment to the viewer.

The theme of psychological empowerment can clearly be seen in the vibrant painting ‘Black Prince (Malcolm)’ by Wadsworth Jarrell, 1971. The portrait depicts Malcom X speaking against segregation in 1963. Inspirational to many of the black community for his contributions to the civil rights movement, Malcolm X dedicated his life to empowering the black community, achieving empowerment on a global scale.

black prince
Wadsworth Jarrell, 1971, Black Prince (Malcolm), acrylic on canvas, courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Munson Steed

Created through the repeated use of the letter ‘B’, standing for concepts such as ‘black’ or ‘beautiful’, the painting focuses on the intrapersonal component of psychological empowerment, aiming to improve how individuals think of themselves and encourage self-esteem and self-belief.  

Malcolm X was aware of the political and social environments surrounding him, and was able to achieve positive change from using this interactional component of empowerment encourages. Jarell incorporates a quote  at the bottom:

‘I believe in anything necessary to correct unjust conditions. Political, economic, social, physical. Anything, as long as it gets results.’

This displays Malcolm’s passion for standing up for what is right –  the behavioural component of empowerment – and and urges viewers to do the same.

Jarrell understands much of the black community’s beliefs and culture, and incorporates it into the painting, even down to the colour palette, which consists of colours typical of Kool-Aid flavour drinks, which were popular within the black community at the time. In doing so, he is reaching out to the intended viewer to draw them in further. This piece does not only demonstrate empowerment within itself through the imagery, colours and words used, but also encourages viewers to be inspired by it; to appreciate their strengths and push for equality and rights.

justice wanted
Aliya Michelle, 2014, Justice Wanted, acrylic on canvas

Issues addressed in the exhibition still ring true today. Although we’d like to believe everyone has equal rights and power, sadly this is not the case. Take the United States, one of the most socially developed countries in the world. Yet if you are a black American male, you are 9 times more likely than any other demographic to be killed by the police.

Modern movements such as Black Lives Matter, initiated to fight such inequality and empower the black American community, have been incorporated into the exhibition, including the thought-provoking painting by Aliya Michelle, ‘Justice Wanted’. Michelle portrays a black woman showing the raised fist, an iconic symbol for black power, but with Black Lives Matter inscribed upon her jewellery. This extends the work of afriCOBRA to today’s society and highlights the ongoing struggles within black communities.



The fight for empowerment continues.

The exhibition Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power is no longer on show at the Tate. It will next be on at the Brooklyn Museum in New York from September 14th 2018 to February 3rd 2019. The exhibition catalogue is available as a paperback book from the Tate’s online shop, and a lot of the paintings are still available to view on the Tate’s website. 




Zimmerman, A, 2000, Empowerment Theory, from Rappaport, J, Seidman, A, 2000, Handbook of Community Psychology, Springer, Boston, MA

Cruikshank, B, 2006, Revolutions within: self-government and self-esteemEconomy and Society, 22(3):327-344

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