“It’s Rarely Taught”: An Exhibition on Afro-Atlantic History | Art

EEarlier that day, she presided over the US Senate’s confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, who marked the occasion by quoting poetry: “I am the slave’s dream and hope. .

Then, in the evening, Vice President Kamala Harris visited the National Gallery of Art in Washington for a reception celebrating the opening of Afro-Atlantic Storiesa historical exhibition that explores the brutal history of the transatlantic slave trade and the cultural heritage of the African diaspora.

Harris – whose father is Jamaican and mother Indian – said the show “not like any other in the history of the National Gallery”, adding: “It is the history of the world and it is American history. And, for many of us, it is also a history Yet this history is rarely taught in our schools or shown in our museums.

The Vice President’s visit was a thrill for the co-curator Kanitra Fletcher. She said of Harris, “She was really lovely, very warm. We were only supposed to show her around for 20 minutes and it ended up being 45. She was really interested.

Photography: Robert Shelley

Afro-Atlantic Stories contains more than 130 works from Africa, Europe, the Americas and the Caribbean, dating from the 17th to the 21st century. It includes leading African-American artists Aaron Douglas, Theaster Gates and Kerry James Marshall as well as Eustáquio Neves from Brazil, Canute Caliste from Grenada and Seneca Obin from Haiti.

The first and last works in the exhibition form powerful bookends. Visitors are greeted by the 8ft tall stainless steel wall sculpture of Hank Willis Thomas A Place to Call Home (Africa-America Reflection), which describes what appears to be the Western Hemisphere but is actually North America bound to Africa.

Thomas, who made the fictional map in 2020, explained that a “mythical connection to Africa is embedded in your identity, but many people go to Africa looking for a home and cannot find it. because our roots are so diluted there. They also never felt at home in the United States, where they were born. I wanted to create a place where African Americans come from.

At the end of the show, conversely, David Hammons african american flag hangs from the ceiling. The red, white and blue of the Stars and Stripes are replaced by red, black and green, a reference to the Pan-African flag created in 1920 with the support of Marcus Garvey, founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association.

Fletcher, the gallery’s associate curator for African-American and Afro-diasporic art, comments, “Thomas reflects on the tenuous relationship between black Americans and Africa and America: feeling very American when in Africa but then in America, because of the stories of racism and discrimination, maybe they don’t feel at home too.

Aaron Douglas - In Bondage
Aaron Douglas – In bondage. Photography: National Gallery of Art, Corcoran Collection

“So Hammons’ work completely merges blackness and Africanness with American identity. In my mind, he’s saying they’re one and the same, they’re not exclusive of each other. It’s a much more provocative but also hopeful take on this subject, I love it there at opposite ends of the exhibit.

Afro-Atlantic Stories was originally presented in 2018 at the São Paulo Museum of Art in Brazil with over 400 works in two locations. It has now been refined for a US tour and is divided into six thematic rather than chronological or geographical sections.

Maps and Margins, for example, evokes the first crossings of the Atlantic of the black diaspora since the arrival of the Portuguese slave traders in Africa until the abolition of slavery in Brazil. It reminds us that this story is much bigger than the United States.

Between 1525 and 1866, about 12.5 million Africans were violently removed from their homes and families and 10.7 million survived the Middle Passage across the Atlantic. Of these, only about 388,000 were shipped directly to North America, or about 4%.

Fletcher observes, “Black Americans are often made to replace other black cultures and we are often centered or focused on discourses of blackness. It is important to think about how to disrupt this, as most enslaved Africans do not end up in America.

“Everything else ended up in South America and the Caribbean, with 40% going to Brazil. It is therefore a huge misunderstanding that it is important to correct, but it is also important to see with these other black cultures how many continuities and similarities we also have with them.

Djanira da Motta e Silva - Mercado Baiano, 1956
Djanira da Motta e Silva – Mercado Baiano, 1956. Photography: Coleção Particular, Salvador, Bahia

In Enslavements and Emancipations there are works that capture terror – like restraint, a haunting 2009 etching by Kara Walker – but also endurance, uprisings and an indomitable spirit. Fletcher continues, “Since slavery began, enslaved Africans have always fought back, fighting for freedom and freedom, and it was not something that was simply handed to them.

“One of the earliest paintings in the slavery section is a picture of fox, a French artist depicting an enslaved black man – he appears to be bludgeoning a white tradesman whose leg you can see in the background. Of course, enslaved Africans were victims, but they were still able to empower themselves to fight for freedom.

Rites and Rhythms focuses on celebrations and ceremonies referring to various religious traditions as well as music and dance, for example samba in Brazil, jazz in the United States and The representations of Pedro Figari candombe dances in Uruguay.

Perhaps most spectacular is a dramatically lit room filled with portraits of black men, women and children from the past four centuries. There is a 1640s oil painting of Don Miguel de CastroCongo’s emissary to the Dutch Republic, a rare image of a black person as a powerful and proud individual in elaborate European clothing.

Zanele Muholi - Ntozahke II, (Parktown)
Zanele Muholi-Ntozahke II, (Parktown). Photography: Courtesy of the artist, Yancey Richardson, New York, and Stevenson Cape Town / Johannesburg

There’s Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s incandescent bulb Eko Skyscraper, which inverts a 1967 photograph of a young woman taken in Kisangani, Congo, adds a new backdrop and renders the image in warm gradations of orange.

Then there is the South African artist Ntozahke II by Zanele Muholi, (Parktown), a giant photographic mural that, with a loose toga-like garment and a crown of scouring pads (a tribute to the artist’s mother, a domestic worker), makes Muholi look like the Statue of Liberty.

“It’s one of the most striking images and it immediately caught our attention,” says Fletcher. “They [Muholi] darkened their skin for this series of self portraits as a way to affirm their darkness and that says even more about the history of the nation and the story of the Statue of Liberty and so many interesting connections that are made. Besides just being a gorgeous picture.

The exhibition, on view until July 17, resists one grand narrative or definitive story but contains multitudes of them. Fletcher concludes, “Often people think that black cultures run counter to European culture and that’s not the case.

“This exhibition shows how our histories are intertwined and I hope this will be recognized: to see how European artists engaged with black people in the past and saw them as a valid subject. But also how, without the presence of blacks, European culture and the modern West would not exist.

“We wouldn’t be where we are today. This would not have happened without the presence of Africans and blacks.

Christopher S. Washington