Navigating the Black Atlantic

Afro Modern highlights how black culture had a profound impact on western art from the early 20th century ownards.

In a roundabout kind of way, the Victorian warehouses that constitute Liverpool's Unesco World Heritage-listed Albert Dock look towards America. It was from the banks of the River Mersey that the ships of the transatlantic slave trade set out, stopping off in Africa for their shameful cargo. Those same ships would eventually return from America to unload the sugar, coffee, tobacco, rice and, crucially, cotton produced by slave labour. In one of these warehouses sits Tate Liverpool, and at times, the knowledge of the happenings there centuries ago lends its new exhibition investigating the impact of black cultures on art an unbearable poignancy.

You'd expect Afro Modern: Journeys Through the Black Atlantic to contain responses from artists on the brutality of slavery, then, and Ellen Gallagher's giant Bird in Hand (2006) is rich in endeavour and subtext. It features a crazed, piratical figure depicted in thick oils, gold leaf and paper glued to the canvas. The piece explores the myth of a Black Atlantis, populated by descendants of the African slaves thrown overboard on the horrific journey they undertook from their homeland to America.

In the same room, Keith Piper's painful narratives superimposed on photography (Go West Young Man, 1987) rail against the effects of slavery on the perception of black identity - and explicitly reference Liverpool. But Afro Modern isn't as bleak as all that sounds. There's an incredibly happy vibrancy to Jacob Lawrence's Nigerian market scene Street to Mbari (1964), and his story - a great African-American artist who became influential by chronicling the black experience - is one that this remarkable exhibition returns to again and again.

Afro Modern certainly succeeds in highlighting how black culture had a profound impact on western art from the early 20th century onwards. In the first of seven rooms, there's a 1907 Picasso oil titled Bust of a Woman. It's quite clearly influenced by African wood carvings - Picasso studied African art - and in that one painting the beginnings of cubism, with all its angles and ambiguities, are thrillingly evidenced.

And despite the presence of many works from Aaron Douglas, the great painter of the 1920s and 1930s who redefined how America saw its African-American communities, Afro Modern isn't simply a journey through history. It concludes with a room titled From Post Modern to Post Black, and pride of place is a stunning 1997 canvas from Chris Ofili - currently enjoying a retrospective at Tate Britain - that both celebrates and pokes fun at black superstardom. It must be the only painting to contain both glitter stars and elephant dung.

It marks the end of the exhibition, but not the end of the story. Afro Modern is part of a citywide Liverpool and the Black Atlantic season. At Fact (the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology), the internationally acclaimed Flow Motion duo explored migration through ancient songs and texts in a sound-art performance last weekend. Sarah Boyce, a pioneer in Black British art, has a multimedia installation at the city centre gallery The Bluecoat. Meanwhile, The International Slavery Museum presents 30 of John Ferguson's portrait photographs that celebrate the contribution of black people in British society.

It's in the hallowed halls of the Walker - the self-styled National Gallery of the North - where the true narrative behind Liverpool and the Black Atlantic truly hits home, however. On the first floor, there is a room dedicated to Aubrey Williams' work. The Guyanese-born painter, who moved to London in the 1950s and died in 1990, had a truly global outlook. Influenced as much by the composer Dmitri Shostakovich as Jackson Pollock and the indigenous cultures of Central and South America, his Hymn to the Sun is a standout. Simultaneously abstract and yet seeming to document the beginning of life itself at the Big Bang, Williams's powerful canvases are a fitting metaphor for the Black Atlantic: of new beginnings from stormy collisions.