The National Gallery opens the historical exhibition “Afro Atlantic Histories”, in the presence of Vice President Harris
The reflective surface means you can see yourself in the artwork, a common trope for engaging the audience and inviting them to conscious reflection. But the size of the work means it creates an image not just of you, but of the National Gallery as well, and that seems to be the point. It is a landmark show, the first authorized by director Kaywin Feldman since she took office in 2019, and the first to give a clear idea of where she would like to take one of the institutions. most prestigious artists in the country.
“Afro-Atlantic Histories” was originally developed by the Sao Paulo Museum of Art, where a larger, more heavily Brazilian-focused version was seen in 2018. Curator Kanitra Fletcher, then at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, set up a smaller exhibition tour, with a broader geographic scope, for Houston and the National Gallery, where she is now Associate Curator of African-American and Afro-Diaspora Art.
During a roundtable on April 8, Fletcher spoke about the importance of seeing this art – which includes centuries of work dating back to colonial times, both by and about the African diaspora – not only at the National Gallery, but in the West Gallery Building. The west building houses the museum’s treasure trove of historical works, tracing a canonical history of the early Renaissance. This canonical history has excluded or erased people of African descent, obscuring their presence and denying their stories even in the rare instances where they are depicted in Western paintings and sculpture.
Thus, “Afro-Atlantic Stories” has considerable symbolic importance for the National Gallery, which must attract and represent the art history of a large multi-ethnic population. This symbolic change in the identity of the gallery received an official imprimatur on April 7, when Vice President Harris spoke at a preview gala the same evening Ketanji Brown Jackson was confirmed by the Senate as the first African-American woman to serve on the Supreme Court. The crowd, which was much more diverse than usual at National Gallery events, was giddy. The museum’s Founder’s Hall, just off the main rotunda, has been turned into a nightclub, complete with dancing.
Four years ago, when I visited a small exhibition of Dutch maritime art in the museum, I was struck by the superficial way in which it dealt with the essential fact of Dutch involvement in colonialism and the slave trade. . The exhibition focused on paintings and ship models, but to depict the larger, darker story of Dutch wealth and prosperity, the curators should have included a wider range of material, including documents and artifacts of slavery. Even in 2018, this would have been an institutional stretch for the museum.
Now it tackles an even bigger and more painful story head-on, and with a very different curatorial and design style.
The walls are full of texts explaining the main themes of the exhibition and the particular details of the works on display. We learn about the quilombos, communities in Brazil that provided refuge for runaway slaves, including Quilombo dos Palmares, which survived nearly a century until it was suppressed by the Portuguese in 1694. And on an 18th century slave market on Wall Street in New York, where humans were traded for half a century before the American Revolution. And, from an early 19th century watercolor, on a mask used to keep slaves from eating dirt, a form of protest and slow suicide.
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The National Gallery is traditionally an aesthetic museum, meaning it focuses on large works in scholarly exhibitions with a style of display that tends to isolate and elevate the art with minimal visual or textual intrusion. . This made it difficult to take into account the history and social context, which require a wider range of documentary material and more basic explanations. Classical painted works by Frédéric Bazille, Théodore Gericault and Eugène Delacroix are presented in the exhibition, in a section devoted to portraiture. But there are also lithographs, photographs, a carte de visite and contemporary archival prints. Many images, including those depicting slaves by European artists, are included not because they are artistically brilliant, but because they reveal Western and colonial biases and caricatures.
All of this creates stunning juxtapositions, including the portrait of Nathaniel Jocelyn de Cinqué, leader of the Amistad rebellion, with Samuel Raven’s “Celebrating the Emancipation of Slaves in British Dominions”. They were made about half a decade apart, in the 1830s or 1840s, but they are startlingly different images of freedom. The portrait of Jocelyn depicts Cinqué in Greco-Roman dress, a handsome and heroic figure seen half-bare-chested, holding a staff. Raven’s image is smaller, showing a central figure with her arms raised, ecstatically saluting freedom. But it’s a clumsy, almost cartoonish image, suggesting crude caricatures of African Americans that would circulate throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.
So, did Jocelyn see and paint all of Cinqué’s humanity, while Raven only captured a grotesque European parody of anonymous characters? Or was Jocelyn just a better and more skilled painter? And what about the Greco-Roman filter? Was the best artist equally prone to typing, equally blind to the actual human being, even if the resulting image is seemingly nobler?
There are gripping moments like this throughout the exhibition. A gallery devoted to religion and ritual combines an 18th-century polychrome statue of Saint Benedict of Palermo with a 1962 abstraction by Rubem Valentim that suggests the cosmology of Afro-Brazilian religious symbolism. Here we have a marvelous confusion of art and status, a classic statue of the first saint of African descent, whose robe is gilded, and a painting done in a 20th century visual language that has very different connotations of depicting people. ‘elite.
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“Afro-Atlantic Stories” is episodic, raising more questions than it answers. The exhibit’s original focus on Brazil remains echoed, suggesting another exhibit that could focus on the iconographic differences between emancipation in the United States and other countries, including Brazil, which only liberated its enslaved people than in 1888. Another room, devoted to daily life, invites a deeper look at the art of the Caribbean diaspora. Galleries devoted to religious work demand an investigation of syncretic spiritual imagery and the flowing lines between Christian and African religious representation.
So “Afro-Atlantic Stories” is a first step, pointing to even earlier stages in what will be a long and fruitful exploration of art very different from that which has traditionally been the subject of the National Gallery. It won’t be easy, and not just because there may be institutional and traditionalist resistance to travel.
The challenge for the National Gallery, as for other museums with vast collections of Western art and a strong scholarly and curatorial superstructure, is not just to tell new or different stories. It’s to weave them with the older stories, appropriately amended, that they already know how to tell. It is finding a way that, like the reflective surface of the map of North America and Africa, integrates everyone in its image.