The groundbreaking “Afro-Atlantic Histories” is now open at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DCMaya Stanton

After a stint at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, a groundbreaking exhibition tracing the history of the transatlantic slave trade and its effects on the African diaspora has opened in Washington, DC

On display in the West Building of the National Gallery of Art through July 17, Afro-Atlantic Histories features more than 130 pieces – paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures, photographs, multimedia and ephemera – dating from the 17th and 21st centuries, by artists from 24 countries across Africa, Europe, the Americas and the Caribbean. 

Big names in the contemporary world are represented, including Kara Walker, Hank Willis Thomas and Ibrahim Mahama, as well as historic figures such as Frans Post and Jean-Baptiste Debret and 20th-century painters like Alma Thomas and ​Romare Bearden. 

Installation view, Afro-Atlantic Histories, 2022 © National Gallery of Art

The exhibit was organized in collaboration with the National Gallery of Art by the MFAH and the Museu de Arte de Sāo Paulo, in Brazil, where it originated in 2018. Washington is the first stop on a national tour; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is next, with further destinations yet to be announced. 

“This exhibition will shed light on the many histories that are crucial to our understanding of the legacy of slavery across the Americas,” NGA director Kaywin Feldman said in the joint press release announcing the Houston and DC exhibits. “Through works made by artists across five centuries, Afro-Atlantic Histories will also celebrate the ongoing influence of the African diaspora on both sides of the Atlantic.”

“Afro-Atlantic Histories recasts the traditional telling of the colonial history of the Western hemisphere within the vast web of the transatlantic slave trade over five centuries,” MFAH director Gary Tinterow added in the statement. “It is an essential reexamination.

Alma Thomas, March on Washington, 1964. © Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York

Writing for the NGA’s blog, Caroline Weaver explained, “We know that history – at least the textbook version of it, with a capital H – often privileges a single perspective over others. Many people find themselves and their cultures excluded from mainstream narratives.” 

“The 17th century is often referred to as the Dutch Golden Age,” Weaver continued. “This era is described as a time of great flourishing, exemplified in part by the luminous paintings of Rembrandt van Rijn and Johannes Vermeer. Yet do these stories acknowledge that this so-called golden age – which included artistic innovations and great prosperity for some – was also inextricably linked with massive trafficking and exploitation of African peoples?”  

To that end, the exhibit is divided into six themes: Maps and Margins focuses on the early days of the slave trade between Africa, the Americas and Europe; Enslavements and Emancipations, on rebellion, escape and Abolitionist movements; Everyday Lives, on daily life in various Black communities; and Rites and Rhythms, on celebrations and ceremonies in the Americas and Caribbean. The Portraits section features Black leaders of the 18th and 19th centuries alongside artists and  unknowns alike, while Resistances and Activism looks at the decades-long struggle for equal rights and freedoms – and not just in the US.

Samuel Fosso, La Femme americaine liberee des annees 70 (Self-Portrait (as Liberated American Woman of the ’70s)), 1997, printed 2003. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston © 1997 Samuel Fosso, courtesy JM. Patras / Paris © Samuel Fosso, courtesy Jean Marc Patras Galerie, Paris

“Black Americans are often made to stand in for other Black cultures, and we often are centered or we center ourselves in discourses on Blackness. It’s important to think about how to disrupt that because most enslaved Africans [did] not end up in America,” curator Kanitra Fletcher said at the opening reception, per the Guardian.

“All the rest ended up in South America and the Caribbean, with 40% going to Brazil. So it’s a huge misunderstanding that is important to be corrected, but it’s also important to see with those other Black cultures how many continuities and similarities that we also have with them.” 

“Often people think that Black cultures are counter to European culture and that is not the case. This show demonstrates how intertwined our histories are and I hope that’s recognized,” Fletcher added. “If it wasn’t for the presence of Black people, European culture and the modern west would not exist. We wouldn’t be where we are today.”

Kerry James Marshall, Voyager, 1992. National Gallery of Art, Corcoran Collection © Kerry James Marshall

During the reception, held just hours after the first Black woman, Kentanji Brown Jackson, was confirmed as a US Supreme Court Justice, Vice President Kamala Harris also called attention to those shared experiences. “This is world history, and it is American history. And, for many of us, it is also family history. Yet this history is rarely taught in our schools or shown in our museums,” Harris said in a speech, per ARTnews.  

“This is an opportunity to experience joy at the artistry, at the creativity, and also an acknowledgement of all we must remember,” she continued. “Let us find, when we walk through these halls, that we will be moved, but that we will also experience joy at seeing the expression. It has been about survival, about self-determination, about a commitment to humanity, about a commitment to endurance and strength and excellence.”

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