The exhibition “Afro-Atlantic Histories” is the most comprehensive look at the interplay of art between Africa and the Americas ever displayed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Curator Kanitra Fletcher, who helped organize the show, said the exhibit features an array of artists from across the Atlantic – from Africa, the Americas and the Caribbean and Europe – from the 17th through 21st centuries.
“It shows how integral Black cultures are to the development of western civilization, of the modern world,” Fletcher told correspondent Rita Braver.
The exhibit, which started in São Paolo, Brazil, is considered so significant that Vice President Kamala Harris stopped by for a viewing in April. “This is world history,” Harris said, “and it is American history, and for many of us, it is also family history.”
The first works in the show focus on some of the cruelest aspects of slavery, like a photo of the scars of a runaway slave from 1863, or a 2009 etching by United States artist Kara Walker depicting a slave wearing a brutal restraining apparatus.
There are portraits of important figures, like Joseph Cinque, who led the 1839 revolt on the Spanish slave ship Amistad, and abolitionist Harriet Tubman.
A 1936 work by Aaron Douglas, a leading painter of the Harlem Renaissance, illustrates both the agony of Africans being marched into slavery and the everlasting dream of freedom. Fletcher said, “You have this Black man in the center, this central figure who’s looking upwards towards the red star, which is ostensibly the North Star.”
There are also works that celebrate the joys of everyday life, including paintings by Brazilian artist Maria Auxiliadora, and Horace Pippin of the U.S. Fletcher said, “It’s showing us that the African diaspora is not just a story about slavery, that there is more to the Black experience.”
In 1975 Dindga McCannon painted a picture of one of her friends, which she titled “Empress Akweke.” Braver asked, “Was her name really Empress, or did you paint her as an empress?”
“Her name was Akweke Singho,” McCannon said, “and she gave herself the title Empress. She had opinions, and she had no shame of letting people understand where she was coming from, and she carried herself as an empress.”
For McCannon, there is special significance in having a work in the same show as one of her teachers, noted American painter Jacob Lawrence.
Braver asked, “What’s that like for you?”
“Incredible!” she replied. “I wish he were still alive so I could give him a big hug.”
The exhibit looks forward as well as back, with images that celebrate exuberance and beauty, but also reflect continuing struggle and activism. One of the most dramatic works is this photographic self-portrait by non-binary South African artist Zanele Muholi, who used steel wool pads to form a crown.
When asked if the photo was meant to reflect the Statue of Liberty, Fletcher said yes: “They were thinking about the symbols of nationhood and who gets to occupy them.”
And why so big? “To have the impact that you see.”
And for McCannon, there is meaning in the very fact that this exhibit is on view at the museum that was designed to be the nation’s showcase for art: “It’s something that’s been a long time coming. Finally we’re here, and it’s great, because now our audiences can expand, so they’ll see a beautiful story of African Americans in America.”
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Story produced by Robyn McFadden. Editor: Lauren Barnello.