This is rarely taught’: an exhibition examining African-Atlantic history

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Earlier that day she had presided over the US Senate confirmation of the supreme court justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, who would mark the occasion by quoting poetry: “I am the dream and the hope of the slave.”

Then, in the evening, Vice-President Kamala Harris headed to the National Gallery of Art in Washington for a reception celebrating the opening of Afro-Atlantic Histories, a landmark exhibition that explores the brutal history of the transatlantic slave trade and cultural legacy of the African diaspora.

Harris – whose father is from Jamaica and mother from India – declared the show “unlike any other in the National Gallery’s history”, adding: “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.”

The vice-presidential visit was a thrill for co-curator Kanitra Fletcher. She says of Harris: “She was really lovely, very warm. We only were supposed to give her a tour for 20 minutes and it ended up being 45. She was genuinely interested.”

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

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

Thomas, who made the fictional map in 2020, has spoken of how a “mythical connection to Africa is embedded in your identity, but many people go to Africa looking for home and don’t find it because our roots are so diluted there. They also never felt at home in the US, where they were born. I wanted to make 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 of African American and Afro-Diasporic Art, comments: “Thomas is thinking about the tenuous relationship between Black Americans and Africa and America: feeling very American when they’re in Africa but then in America, because of histories of racism and discrimination, maybe not feeling like they’re home also.

“Then Hammons’ work is fully merging Blackness and Africanness with American identity. In my mind he’s saying that they are one and the same, they are not exclusive of each other. It’s a much more defiant but also hopeful kind of approach to that topic. I just love it there at opposite ends of the exhibition.”Afro-Atlantic Histories was originally presented in 2018 at the Museum of Art in São Paulo in Brazil with more than 400 works at two venues. It has now been refined for a US tour and is divided into six sections by theme rather than chronology or geography.

Maps and Margins, for example, evokes the early Atlantic crossings of the Black diaspora from the arrival of Portuguese slave traders in Africa to the abolition of slavery in Brazil. It serves as a reminder that this story is much bigger than the US.

Between 1525 and 1866, an estimated 12.5 million Africans were violently taken 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 – roughly 4%.

Fletcher observes: “Black Americans are often made to stand in for other Black cultures and we often are centred or we centre ourselves in discourses on Blackness. It’s important to think about how to disrupt that because most enslaved Africans do not end up in America.

“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.”

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