With ‘Afro-Atlantic Histories’, Washington’s often frozen National Gallery of Art finally recognizes contributions it has long ignored

For a week in May, the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden was the loudest place in the US capital.

Every afternoon, a Kara Walker-designed steam carnival organ blew and blew on the National Mall, drawing curious crowds. his piece, The Katastwóf Karavan, is a calliope, a mechanical component once common on steam engines that traveled up and down the Mississippi River. The cacophony is broadcast from a parade wagon shrouded in steel figures representing the scenes from the artist’s tales of pre-war nightmares.

Kara Walker, The Katastwóf Karavan (2017). Installation view: Prospect 4: The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp, New Orleans, 2018. Photo: Alex Marks © Kara Walker.

The sour melody of Walker’s contraption cast a spell over the onlookers. more than his traffic stop appearance at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2019, even more than his magic start at the Prospect 4 Triennial in New Orleans in 2018—The KaravanDC’s disruptive and dyspeptic residency in DC marked a turning point for his room. Walker’s work has come to town as part of “Afro-Atlantic Stories,” a consequent show for one of Washington’s most stilted institutions. Maybe more.

“Afro-Atlantic Stories” is unlike anything else ever shown at the National Gallery. With artwork dating from the 1700s to the present day, it traces the paths of the African diaspora as enslaved peoples arrived in the Americas and pursued their liberation. The exhibition combines collectibles with contemporary acquisitions as well as Indigenous works, including objects that the National Gallery might not have recognized as art just a few years ago.

For the first time, a museum that has been silent on so many fronts of art history – or art histories – has decided to speak out.

The show opens with A Place to Call Home (Africa-America Reflection) (2020), a mirror of Hank WillisThomas shaped like the western hemisphere of an alternate Earth, with the North American continent connected to Africa by Central America.

The entry of “Afro-Atlantic Histories” into the National Gallery of Art with Hank Willis Thomas’s A Place to Call Home (Africa-America Reflection) (2020) in the background.

It is one of many new acquisitions by the National Gallery for its display. Among the other new works in the permanent collection, a totem of Daniel Lind Ramos of Puerto Rico and a drawing of Njideka Akunyili Crosby from Lagos. A striking and monumental ebony portrait of Zanele Muholi (Ntozakhe II, (Parktown) from 2016, also new to the collection, can be seen throughout the city in promotional advertisements.

Zanele Muholi, Ntozakhe II, (Parktown) (2016). © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of the artist, Yancey Richardson, New York, and Stevenson Cape Town/Johannesburg.

While these contemporary works are welcome additions for a museum with a laser-like focus on the canon, “Afro-Atlantic Stories” makes its strongest case through portraits and landscapes from the 18th and 19th centuries. This should be firmer territory for the National Gallery, but “Afro-Atlantic Stories” finds the museum on new ground.

by Edouard-Antoine Renard Rebellion of slaves on a slave ship (1833) depicts a heroic black man holding a mighty oar as if it were a baseball bat, a white slaver’s feet arrayed beneath him. At Nathaniel Jocelyne’s Portrait of Cinque (1839-1840) is a rich contemporary portrait of the farmer from Mende who led the revolt on the Spanish slave ship The Amistad. Alongside these idealized paintings are more ambivalent scenes, such as that of George Morland A European ship is wrecked on the African coast (1788–1790), which shows benevolent Africans rescuing distressed Europeans, as well as Thomas Satterwhite Noble The Last Sale of Slaves in St. Louis, Missouri (1880), an image of social stagnation at the heart of the country. Fantasy, testimony, and other staged representations, sometimes side by side, contribute to establishing the concept of competing, plural histories.

Edouard Antoine Renard, A slave rebellion on a slaver (1833). La Rochelle, Museum of the New World, France.

Originally organized by the Museu de Arte de São Paulo and the Instituto Tomie Ohtake in Brazil, “Afro-Atlantic Histories” was adapted for presentations in the United States at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston (where it was presented from October 2021 to January 2022) and the National Gallery (on view until July 17). From the Museu de Arte come Heitor dos Prazeres’ flattened figurative oil paintings of Afro-Brazilian work and play, while contributions from the MFAH include paintings on board of Louisiana plantation life by Clementine Hunter. As much as anything else in the exhibition, these self-taught artists challenge and expand the stories the National Gallery has sought to elevate in the past.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the National Gallery’s display of black figurative art is contemporary, if not hip. The Mid-Century Paintings Showcase by Prazeres back, Horace Pepin, Hayward Oubre, William H. Johnson and other aberrant artists align themselves with similar gestures elsewhere, be it that of Azikiwe Mohammed deskilled looking facility across town at Transformer or Celestin Faustin inclusion in the Venice Biennale this summer. In the art world, there is always something in the water; the National Gallery is just generally far from it.

Heitor dos Prazeres, The musicians (1950s). São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand Art Museum.

Change at the museum starts with the staff. At the top of the org chart is Kaywin Feldman, who made “Afro-Atlantic stories” a priority when she arrived as director in 2019. She hired Kanitra Fletcher, the museum’s first curator of African American and Afro-Diaspora Art and organizer of the exhibition’s US tour. (Fletcher also brought Tate Modern’s The Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power exhibition in Houston.) Additionally, the National Gallery has named steven nelson, professor of African and African American art history at the University of California, Los Angeles, as dean of the museum’s prestigious Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts. Joining them is Eve Straussman-Pflanzerthe new curator and responsible for Italian and Spanish paintings, among dozens of other recent recruits.

Appointing a feminist art historian to head the Southern European paintings department or appointing a curator to bring the African diaspora into the collection may seem like sowing the seeds for future growth. But changes are already underway. The National Gallery has just acquired a painting of a noblewoman by 16th-century Mannerist artist Lavinia Fontana, perhaps the first professional female artist in the West. He picked up a second piece by Yellow Quick-to-See Smith, the first Native American painter in the collection of the National Gallery. And the museum aggressively acquires works by black artists, including Genesis Tramaine, Marion Perkins and David Driskel. (The National Gallery would not confirm acquisitions by Fontana or Perkins.)

This is a reversal of a dismal record that dates back decades. Featured recent shows Olivier Lee Jackson and Lynda Benglis (curated by Harry Cooper and Molly Donovan, respectively) represent two of the few exhibitions by living artists who are women or people of color. The story is not much better for marginalized artists of the past.

“Afro-Atlantic Stories” cannot say much about the trajectory of the National Gallery. It’s not perfect for the museum, or for the United States. It’s superficial about the Afro-Latino artists from Haiti and Cuba: Rigaud Benoit, Wilson Bigaud and Wifredo Lam were not selected for the American tour. While the exhibition unfolds both thematically and chronologically, at the end it spreads out. A painting of Emperor Haile Selassie by the Ethiopian painter Alaqa Gabra Selassefor example, doesn’t seem to match the theme.

But the exhibition has already demonstrated what a new perspective for the National Gallery could mean for the museum and for Washington. Incoming Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States Ketanji Brown Jackson visited the exhibition. So did the Obamas. The National Gallery has yet to produce an original exhibition under the imprimatur of its new director, Feldman, but with a surprisingly relevant first release, the museum is already making noise.

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