By SHEILA WICKOUSKI
Unlike exhibitions that structure art history into a grand narrative by narrowly focusing on the work of one artist or a particular school of art, “Afro-Atlantic Histories” explores history through the art.
Specifically, the shared history of the African diaspora is revealed over a temporal and geographic expanse through works as varied as painting, works on paper, sculpture, photography, temporal media art and ephemera.
Covering 400 years from the 17th to the 21st century from 24 countries across the Americas, Africa and Europe, the exhibition, which originated in Brazil, is now on view at the National Gallery of Art until July 17.
Mounted at the entrance to “Maps and Margins” is “A Place to Call Home (Africa America Reflection)” (2020) by Hank Willis Thomas. The polished aluminum map shows Africa replacing South America in its connection to North America and offers visitors a moment, before entering the galleries, to capture their reflection and perhaps see themselves as part of the exhibition.
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In “Enslavement and Emancipation”, the chains from John Phillip Simpson’s “The Captive Slave” (1827) are partially hidden under the sleeves of his red clothes. His face is so modern – a contrast to the figure of a man in Aaron Douglas’ painting “Into Bondage” (1936). Douglas’ impending work concerns the moment when a group of Africans are taken on a slave ship bound for the Americas, with a man whose head looks upwards into the light. Opposed to Douglas’s use of pastels are dark, realistic images of torturous practices. ‘The Scourged Back’, a widely published 1863 photograph is placed alongside the 2009 engraving ‘Restraint’, a powerful image of a silhouetted figure in an iron brindle, by American artist Kara Walker.
“Celebrating the Emancipation of Slaves in British Dominions, August 1832” (1834) is Samuel Ravens’ romantic vision of emancipation, while Theodor Kaufmann’s “On to Liberty” (1867) is a scene of women and children fleeing through the woods he witnessed. as a Union soldier.
Another view fictionalized in “Everyday Lives” is one that might be found in Dutch galleries. “Landscape with Anteater” (c.1660) by Dutch artist Frans Post places enslaved laborers and indigenous people in an idyllic Brazilian landscape. Three hundred years later, the American artist Romare Bearden, inspired by jazz and blues, depicts a sharecropper in his monumental collage “Tomorrow I May Be Far Away” (1967).
“Rites and Rhythms” springs with the joy of celebrations that overcome all the adversities experienced during centuries of slavery, emancipation and everyday life. Among dance and party paintings across the Americas, one stands out. Jazz Age painter Archibald John Motley Jr. chronicled African-American social and cultural moments in Chicago. In his “Nightlife” (1943), one is transported for a moment outside the gallery space to another time and place, hearing the jazz and the laughter of the crowd echoing through its vibrant colors.
“Portraits” shines a light on lesser-known black leaders of the 18th and 19th centuries, such as the oil on canvas “Zeferina” (2018) by Dalton Paula, the leader of a slave rebellion arrested and sentenced to death. Some will see the face of the Statue of Liberty in “Ntozahke II, (Parktown)” by Zanele Muholi (2016). Imposing, this photographic mural from a digital file measures almost 12 feet by 8 feet.
In addition to banners, flags and textiles, “Resistances and Activisms” features a video by Peruvian artist Victoria Santa Cruz. “They Shouted Black at Me” (1978) is the artist’s powerful renunciation of colorism and racism inspired by his personal history. Also personal is a figurative painting by Alma Thomas, “March on Washington” (1964), which recalls her experience at the historic protest.
Each of these themes could well be the subject of its own exhibition. Extending beyond gallery walls, “Afro-Atlantic Histories” sets the stage for artistic and historical discoveries continuing beyond the exit.
“Portrait of My Grandmother” (1922), one of Motley’s best-loved works, which could well have been included in the exhibition theme “Portraits”. Emily Simms Motley, a woman born into slavery in the South in 1842, who gained freedom after the Civil War and moved to Chicago to be with her son who worked as a Pullman Porter, now takes her place among other American women in his time . (By the way, the Motley used for this portrait was cut from a laundry basket stolen from the Wolverine train (Chicago and Detroit route).
“Conversations: Carrie Mae Weems and the Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial” is an ongoing special exhibit. Weems’ work engages Augustus Saint–Gaudens’ life-size sculpture, “The Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment” (1884) with his “Untitled” (1996, printed 2020), a septych of photographs with superimposed text, which speaks of another march into the next century, the Great Migration of Americans streaming north from the Jim Crow South.
To bring it closer to home, “A Pastoral Visit” (1881) depicts an elderly pastor at a table with a family of parishioners, a scene from African-American life in Virginia. The work is known for its portrayal of humanity and dignity, a rarity that artist Richard Norris Brooke criticized as “a flimsy treatment and vulgar exaggeration” in the usual depiction of African Americans in the 19th century.
Closer to home, the NGA exhibit titled “Photographs: A Portrait of Harlem” by James Van Der Zee (until May 30, 2022) is a treasure trove of historic photographs from early 19th century Harlem.
The NGA exhibit included a work by the Washington-born sculptures Elizabeth Catlett, her “Reclining Female Nude” (1955), a bronze sculpture approximately 8 by 5 inches. The National Museum of African American History and Culture nearby has installed three 5-foot-tall sculptures created by Elizabeth Catlett. “Offering Education, Offering Life, and Rejecting Injustice” on long-term display as visitors enter the museum through the Heritage Hall.
Sheila Wickouski contributes to The Free Lance-Star.