Frank Bowling moved to the United States in the mid-1960s, during a particularly tumultuous and pivotal moment in the country’s history. His art served as a commentary on the experience of being a Black individual from a multicultural background. Stunning color-saturated works like Suncrush (1976) are rooted in inspiration from his homeland, British Guiana (now Guyana), but simultaneously and undeniably carry influence from the abstractionist movement of which he was in the vanguard after moving to New York City.
At that time, conversations about race had reached unprecedented levels, and Bowling seemed caught in the middle. He identified as a Black man but was reticent to let that title limit the narrative of his art or carry meaning solely in that context. This position is well summarized by Lawrence Alloway and Sam Hunter in their introduction to the “5+1” exhibition catalogue: “The situation of Black artists is ambiguous: there is considerable use of the idea of art as an instrument to advance Black identity, Black rights; there is, also, clearly and successfully, an impulse towards the making of art as art.”
Despite any qualms about labeling himself or his art, Bowling’s work undoubtedly contributed to the ongoing conversation in the United States that began during the civil rights movement. Amid a critical discourse that excluded Black participants—in the “5+1” exhibition catalogue, Bowling wrote that “Black artistic endeavor has never been accommodated in the dialectic”—he created the space he sought to be a part of himself. Bowling was deliberate in his decision to create an exhibition for Black creators, demonstrating the importance of representation and involvement in the arts and humanities.
The implications of Bowling’s legacy are far-reaching. Today, “Frank Bowling’s Americas” at the MFA has prompted reinvigorated questions and thoughts about identity through other lenses. “Equals 6: A Sum Effect of Frank Bowling’s 5+1,” the companion exhibition at UMass Boston’s University Hall Gallery, considered “5+1” through the creative vision of female and gay artists, demonstrating how the project brought forth by the civil rights movement did not end in the 20th century but continues to prompt new questions about art and inclusivity in the 21st century.
It’s fitting that MFA Boston, UMass Boston, and Stony Brook University have paid homage to the original sentiments behind “5+1” while creating space for other groups to demonstrate progress toward a more accepting art world. The disparity comes into view if we consider William T. Williams’s divisive “5+1” catalogue contribution, which states: “Winds and rumors destroy work by Black artists … later to be rediscovered by French moralists and homosexual hounds.” With this, he pits one marginalized group against another. “Equals 6” unravels this sentiment and drives home the notion that working in tandem is the way forward.
Today, Frank Bowling’s work continues to remind us of the importance of advocacy and allyship. We must continue the dialogue about race, gender, and class division to break down cycles of oppression for ourselves, our neighbors, and the future generations. As a woman who came from a low-income background, I am moved by Bowling’s ability to prompt conversation through art. Fifty years later, “5+1” continues to inspire greater representation in the art community, inviting folks who have previously been deprived of their voice the opportunity to speak up and speak out.
Kailyn Fellmeth graduated summa cum laude from the University of Massachusetts Boston in 2020, with a triple major in economics, political science, and Italian studies. She currently works in the public sector.