Powerful ‘Afro-Atlantic Stories’ Exhibition Comes to National Gallery of Art | Arts & Theater


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 across a span of time and geography 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.

At the entrance to “Maps and Margins”, one of the six thematic sections, is “A Place to Call Home (Africa America Reflection)” (2020) by Hank Willis Thomas. The polished aluminum map shows Africa replacing South America in relation to North America and offers visitors a moment, before entering the galleries, to capture their reflection and perhaps see themselves as doing part of the exhibition.

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In “Enslavement and Emancipation”, the chains from John Philip 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 gazing upwards into the light. Contrasted with 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 print ‘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 which he witnessed a Union soldier.

Another fictionalized view, “Everyday Lives”, is the one you might find 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” spotlights 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 during the historic demonstration.

Each of these themes could well be the subject of its own exhibition. Extending beyond gallery walls, “Afro-Atlantic Stories” sets the stage for artistic and historical discoveries continuing beyond the exit.

In a nearby gallery, ‘Portrait of My Grandmother’ (1922), one of Motley’s most beloved works, might well have been in the ‘Portraits’ section of the exhibition. Emily Simms Motley, a woman born into slavery in the South in 1842, gained freedom after the Civil War, then moved to Chicago to be with her son who worked as a Pullman porter. She now takes her place among the other American women of her time.

“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 him 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.

The National Gallery of Art exhibit also includes a work by Washington-born sculptor Elizabeth Catlett, “Reclining Female Nude” (1955), a bronze sculpture approximately 8 by 5 inches. The National History Museum and of nearby African-American culture installed three 5-foot-tall sculptures created by Catlett. “Offering Education, Offering Life, and Rejecting Injustice” is on full display as visitors enter the museum through the Heritage Hall.

Sheila Wickouski contributes to The Free Lance-Star.

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