The National Gallery of Art in Washington reviews five centuries of African influence on Western art

An exhibit exploring the cultural heritage of the African diaspora and the history of the transatlantic slave trade will open at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC this month. Having traveled from the Museu de Arte de São Paulo to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Afro-Atlantic Stories aims to stimulate debate on the impact of the African diaspora on art history.

“The show demonstrates that the diasporic movement and migration of people of African descent have been integral to the development of the Western Hemisphere,” write the show’s curators, Kanitra Fletcher, Molly Donovan and Steven Nelson.

At Dalton Paula’s Zeferina (2018) MASP collection; © the artist

The exhibition also finds itself in conversation with a wide range of art historical legacies such as those concerning depictions of black subjects through different mediums. The exhibition’s strong showcase of black portraiture – an ancient art form often overlooked in Western museum collections – is a source of pride for its curators, who choose a few key examples: the striking portraits of Dalton Paula Zeferina and João de Deus Nascimento (2018), the monumental by Zanele Muholi Ntozahke II, (Parktown) (2016), and Don Miguel de Castro, emissary of Kongo (circa 1643) by an unknown Dutch artist.

Covering art from the 17th to the 21st century, the exhibition bridges national borders, languages, cultures and histories, reflecting how these different colonial pasts have influenced the artists working today. “We wanted to show how much the past informs the works of today’s artists,” explain the curators. “Radcliffe Bailey, Glenn Ligon, Kerry James Marshall, Zanele Muholi, Rosana Paulino, Paulo Nazareth, Kara Walker and so many others have created works that speak to the current moment, but they have done so by looking back and beyond. beyond their immediate context, always amplifying historical events and figures that continue to resonate today.

Indio da floresta (Caboclo) by Rosina Becker do Valle [Indian from the Forest (Caboclo)] (1963) MASP collection

The show also aims to add layers and nuances to what was often a violent story of displacement. “Afro-Atlantic Stories demonstrates that black people have had complex and compelling histories across the world despite traumatic experiences. It celebrates the joy, love, beauty and creativity of black people, [which is] not always seen in museums or the media, or studied in school,”
say the conservatives.

The exhibition will include works from 24 countries in Africa, the Americas, the Caribbean and Europe, and will feature wall texts in English and Spanish – with translation an integral part not only of the composition of the exhibition, but also the commitment of its curators to embrace different registers and realities. “This multiplicity of perspectives is signaled in the titular word “stories” of the Portuguese stories, that is to say open, plural and diverse histories,” the curators state. “Art can be instructive, a reminder of how humanity has or hasn’t changed in many ways or how history can be recursive.”

Afro-Atlantic StoriesNational Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, April 10-July 17

About Bernice D. Brewer

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