National Gallery of Art opens thoughtful exhibit ‘Afro-Atlantic Stories’

Gallery visitors can now explore Afro-Atlantic Stories, an exhibition from the National Gallery of Art that explores the impact of the Atlantic slave trade and its dispersal of black people across the world.

The exhibition, on view since Sunday, guides the viewer through six thematic phases that intertwine more than 130 works of art from different eras, telling different segments of the evolution of the Atlantic slave trade through various artistic mediums.

The experience opened on a reflective steel map, connecting the United States and Africa. According to artist Hank Willis Thomas, A place call home is a reflection on the lost connection to home that black people felt when they were shipped into slavery and the devastating impact that reverberated through the generations.

The opening thematic section, Maps and Margins, focused on the art of the Atlantic slave trade and how it spread slaves around the world. It housed one of the most striking pieces of the exhibition, entitled Traveler.

The subject, an enslaved woman, gazes into the distance at the horizon and seems bound, contrasting with the beautiful swirls framing the form. The art draws the viewer in with its vibrant colors and broad brushstrokes, but elicits a somber response upon closer inspection.

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The Haitian widows surrounding the painting provide individual elements of the overall story of change and transformation that occurred through the Atlantic slave trade. One of the symbols depicted a medical record of unborn babies, surrounded by dripping red paint, which made me mourn all the lives and future generations that have been lost.

The painting was beautiful and haunting, but it dug me beyond the surface and settled a deep wave of grief over me the more I looked.

The exhibition as a whole weaved historical artworks, which were largely European-centric and came from a white perspective on slavery, and modern accounts of the history of black artists who ultimately able to tell their stories, which provided fascinating juxtapositions and a detailed account of a long story.

In the Enslavement and Emancipations section, this pattern was exemplified in a triad of plays, all centering on the story of a former slave named Gordon who was photographed after being beaten, causing uproar among abolitionists and becoming a point rallying for anti-slavery. movement.

The exhibition presented this history from three different angles: Ex-slave Gordon (2017), On the way to freedom (1867) and Sem Title [Untitled] from the Memoria Black Maria series [Memory Black Maria] (1995), all of which refer in some way to Gordon’s story and the impact it had in very different times.

The Rites and Rhythms section of the exhibition provided a very important balance to the overall narrative by delving into the beauty of black religions and music, respite from trauma, and extremely difficult depictions of brutality.

A visitor looks at “The Last Sale of Slaves in St. Louis, Missouri” by Thomas Scatterwhite Noble in the National Gallery of Art’s Afro-Atlantic Histories exhibition on April 9, 2022. (Joe Ryan/The Diamondback)

The exhibit includes work by David C. Driskell, a University of Maryland professor renowned for his knowledge of African-American art history, passed away in April 2020. The room, Current forms: Yoruba circle, portrays the Yoruba deity Shango with bright and vivid swirling brushstrokes, combining traditional culture with modern practices.

Rites and Rhythms leads into Portraits, which was my favorite section of the whole show. The National Gallery’s cavernous space was filled with portraits of black leaders and artists in different mediums, artistic aesthetics, sizes and through time. As a frequent visitor to museums, I’ve never seen anything like it, and it made me take a critical look at the art world so that something like this isn’t more common.

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Ntozakhe II, (Parktown)which was often used as the main image for the exhibition advertisement, hung in the middle of the exhibition, drawing attention with its stark contrast, ethereal nature and scale.

Artist Zanele Muholi accompanies the viewer throughout the audio tour and delivers some of the exhibition’s most powerful words.

“Why is black life so fascinating? Why are we here? Why do ordinary people only appear in magazines when there is a tragedy? Why are there no images of queer people and especially black people and yet people are told you have a right to be queer? I just wanted to produce images that spoke to me as a person, that still speak to me today. I’m bubbling inside. Like any other great man, I want to be counted in history,” Muholi said in the audio transcript, although when I got up to look at the art, I felt like Muholi was saying it to me directly. .

Afro-Atlantic Stories will invite you to take a critical look at history and the way we consume it. It was clearly put together with a lot of thought and attention to story and storytelling.

Prepare to take a step back, take a deep breath, because the content is disturbing and hard to watch at times, but it tells the story in an involved and complete way. Plus, you can unpack at the National Gallery cafe, which serves jerk chicken as part of the exhibit.

The exhibition will be open at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, through July 17, and features several performances, talks and concerts offered throughout its exhibition, which can be found on its website.

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