Like everyone else, those responsible for The National Gallery of Art in Washington thought they had to come out of the pandemic doing better than before. So when the formidable art museum in the federal capital reopened in the spring of 2021, after a long year of closure, its management set itself the goal of diversifying its discourse. The museum, like the rest of the country, suddenly awoke to the Black Lives Matter era with lots of racial accounts to do.
Among other measures, the museum has hired Kanitra Fletcher as Associate Curator of African American and Afro-Diaspora Art. She is responsible for ensuring that black art is represented in the venerable institution. She is also the curator of the American tour of the exhibition “Afro-Atlantic Stories”, which comes from the Museu de arte de São Paulo, where she caused a sensation in 2018. The stay of the exhibition in Washington ended this weekend on a great success. with critics and the public: according to estimates by the National Gallery, “Afro-Atlantic Stories” received some 140,000 visitors, making it “one of the exhibitions which has aroused the most interest in recent years” .
Vice President Kamala Harris, the first woman and first person of color to hold the office in the United States, attended the expo. She celebrated the “historic occasion” during her visit to “Afro-Atlantic Stories”. “And that’s precisely because it’s a story rarely heard in our schools or exhibited in our museums,” she told the director of the National Gallery, Kaywin Feldman, the first woman to lead the museum in eight decades of history. This exhibition was the first project entirely owned by Feldman since she took office in 2019.
The exhibition aimed to rethink the history of the slave diaspora and its social and cultural consequences through 130 works of art and documents from the 17th century to the present day, originating from Africa, the Americas and Europe.
In São Paulo, exposure was more extensive. Fletcher, who was previously at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, where the exhibit was also displayed, worked to tailor the art exhibit to the circumstances of each venue. “In Washington, for example, we gave a special place to works that were in our collection, and which, in some cases, were recently acquired with the idea of diversifying the National Gallery”, explained the curator in a telephone . conversation. Among the new acquisitions are the sculpture by Puerto Rican artist Daniel Lind-Ramos “Figura de poder” (Power Figure, 2017), and the piece “Ntozahke II, (Parktown)” (2016), a photographic fresco from the digital archives by Zanele Muholi, the self-portrait that has made the South African artist a ubiquitous presence in the city in recent months.
Another recent acquisition, the American artist Hank Willis Thomas “A Place to Call Home (Africa-America Reflection)– a two-meter high stainless steel map – welcomes visitors to “Afro-Atlantic Stories” and to a continent where Africa and North America unite at the latitude of Panama. In this same room, a plan of a slave ship from 1789 sets the tone for the discourse of the exhibition where everything – eras and media – blend together, and where contemporary art mixes with Creole canvases from the 18th century and paintings by Afro modernists. -Americans, including Alma Thomas, Jacob Laurent and Aaron Daniels.
The result offers a transnational view of the black American experience. It completes the readings of the room recently inaugurated National Museum of African American History and Culturethe only Smithsonian institution where the visitor must make a reservation to guarantee access (they all have free admission), and the Project 1619, which rethinks the starting point of US history, shifting it from 1776 to the year the first slave arrived in Point Fort, Virginia (located some 300 miles from the National Gallery). The “Afro-Atlantic Histories” exhibition that ended Sunday in Washington also argues for a re-examination of this question.