‘Afro-Atlantic Histories’ quietly rebuts portrayals of black experience

Nobles by Thomas Satterwhite The Last Slave Auction in Saint Louis, Missouri (c.1880) depicts the titular scene but, poignantly, it is difficult to tell where the slaves begin and where the white citizens—or “massas”—end. The crowd’s skin tones vary, ranging from white to tan to brown. At the center of the composition, a mulatto child dressed in virginal white stares at the viewer, her eyes seeming to say, “I am you; you are me.’ The narrative of miscegenation at play here resonates in the NGA’s new exhibit, “Afro-Atlantic Stories,” serving as a silent rebuttal to depictions of “black experience” that historically isolate black history within the larger context of western history.

Kerry James Marshall, Traveler, 1992, acrylic and collage on canvas. Courtesy of the artist, National Gallery of Art and Corcoran Collection (Gift of the Women’s Committee of the Corcoran Gallery of Art)

Originally curated and presented at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo in 2018 – where 450 works were presented – the NGA iteration is more modest, with around 130 works and documents made in West Africa, the Americas, the Caribbean and Europe between the 17th and 21st centuries. For example, a painting by 18th-century white British artist George Morland hangs next to iconic Harlem Renaissance painter Aaron Douglas. in bondage (1936), a twilight scene that shows men and women in chains walking towards a ship on the horizon en route to the Americas. On the other hand, Morland African Hospitality (circa 1789) depicts a white family, shipwrecked on the West African coast. In the stormy moonlight, a black man in a white loincloth sensually makes a thirsty white man drink water. Like Noble’s painting, it evokes the mixing of fluids – spit, semen, blood – between people of all ethnicities that occurred as a result of the transatlantic slave trade and betrays the notion of purity and discretion on which the whiteness project. built.

Alma Thomas March on Washington, 1964 acrylic on canvas Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York
Alma Thomas, March on Washington, 1964, acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist, National Gallery of Art and Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York

Drawing on these histories of miscegenation, curator Kanitra Fletcher also highlights how meticulously Afro-Atlantic history needs to be pieced together. The beautifully rendered “portraits” of Brazilian artist Dalton Paula, for example, depict black Brazilian historical figures whose faces have never been documented. Revered for founding a community in northern Brazil for those who escaped slavery, Zeferina (2018) has a rich coffee complexion, silver earrings and a delicately ruffled neckline, which accentuate her regal look. Disrupting this harmony, Paula places a ‘Mr. Potato Head’s nose on his black face – like a literal seal of colonialism – once again tells us of the racial mix that defines all of Atlantic history.

by Titus Kaphar space to forget (2014) again reminds us that non-black people cannot simply extricate themselves from Afro stories. Rendered from a found archival photograph of a black nanny on all fours with her white pupil on her back, Kaphar literally cuts the burden off the woman’s back from the painting, leaving empty space. Yet, juxtaposed with the anonymous reference photograph (Nanny playing with child in Petropolis, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil1899), audiences can’t escape the reality of the burden — nor can they entertain the myth that they’re not part of that story.

Samuel Fosso Self‐Portrait (as Liberated American Woman of the '70s), 1997, printed in 2003 chromogenic print The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum purchase financed by Nina and Michael Zilkha © 1997 Samuel Fosso, courtesy JM.  Patras / Paris
Samuel Foso, Self-Portrait (as a liberated American woman of the 70s), 1997, printed in 2003, chromogenic print. Courtesy of the artist, National Gallery of Art, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and JM. Patras / Paris

In a 2018 article for this magazine, I argued that Toyin Ojih Odutola’s portrayals of a fictional Nigerian aristocracy were radical in portraying their protagonists at leisure, cementing a black experience entirely devoid of struggle or oppression. Four years later, “Afro-Atlantic Histories” sets a similar benchmark, making the case for an art historical narrative that challenges its non-black viewers to wander off in thought – however beautiful or terrible it may be as an experience for black people – that it has nothing to do with them.

Main image: “African-Atlantic Stories”, 2022, exhibition view. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

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