July 3, 2022

Politics and Commentary News Aggregator

A Visionary Show Moves Black History Beyond Borders

5 min read

While the African American past has never been more visible, emphasis often falls on its patriotic dimensions. The belated recognition that Black history is American history has encouraged an impression that it is only American history, as though twelve million Africans crossed the Atlantic solely for the pleasure of exposing contradictions in the Declaration of Independence. This nationalizing tendency occurs along a broad political spectrum, from the conservative fringe of the reparations movement—obsessed with keeping any future payout from the children of Black immigrants—to the liberals who view Black voters as the destined saviors of constitutional democracy. When the 1619 Project suggested a new national birth date, it was not the first year that Africans arrived in the Americas, or even in Florida, South Carolina, and Puerto Rico, but the first year that they arrived in Point Comfort, Virginia, the better to serve as alternative founders in the civic religion of the United States.

What this narrative threatens to eclipse is an international vision of Blackness, emerging from resistance to a violent global system and constituting what the scholar Paul Gilroy described, in “The Black Atlantic” (1993), as a “counterculture of modernity.” Gilroy’s ideas have only gained relevance amid worldwide struggles over migration and climate justice. Nevertheless, today’s Black America feels little kinship with Africa, one writer recently argued, while its growing diversity is often reduced to a cosmopolitan garnish. In a 2021 essay for the London Review of Books, the scholar Hazel V. Carby observed that the National Museum of African American History and Culture (N.M.A.A.H.C.), in Washington, D.C.—designed by the Ghanaian British architect David Adjaye, who took inspiration from Yoruba crowns—exhibited “more items associated with the history of the black community on Martha’s Vineyard than with the whole of Latin America, including the Caribbean.”

Now, less than a mile from N.M.A.A.H.C., a powerful corrective has arrived in the form of “Afro-Atlantic Histories,” a visual survey of the diaspora at the National Gallery of Art. The show, which runs through July, assembles more than a hundred and thirty art works—paintings, prints, sculptures, and more—in an odyssey that extends from seventeenth-century Kongo to present-day Puerto Rico. Contemporary artists like Toyin Ojih Odutola share space with modernists like Aaron Douglas and Elizabeth Catlett, alongside records of the transatlantic slave trade and early modern Euro-American representations of Black subjects. The exhibition boldly dispenses with any distinction between artifacts and works of the imagination: A.A. Lamb’s “Emancipation Proclamation” (1864 or after), which depicts a saintly Abraham Lincoln delivering freedom on horseback, is on equal footing with Dalton Paula’s “Zeferina” (2018), an imagined portrait of a woman executed for leading a slave uprising near Salvador da Bahia in 1826.

“Afro-Atlantic Histories” premièred at the São Paulo Museum of Art, in 2018. Curated by a group including Adriano Pedrosa, it contained over four hundred objects, in a reflection of Brazil’s dense cultural networks across the diaspora. (The last country in the Americas to ban the slave trade, it was also the final destination for a plurality of its victims.) The D.C. version, organized by Molly Donovan, Steven Nelson, and Kanitra Fletcher, is around one-third the size but retains a monumental scope, enhanced by a few inspired acquisitions. The selection has been tailored to a local audience, with an emphasis on resonances between African American artists and their counterparts abroad. The museum has also organized a season’s worth of events, including lectures, film screenings, city tours, symposiums, and concerts. The invitation to see, hear, and even taste the diaspora—a special menu by the museum’s executive chef, Christopher Curtis, adapts Jamaican dishes for the Potomac region—was appropriately consecrated by Vice-President Kamala Harris, who appeared visibly moved during her remarks at the opening. “This is world history, and it is American history,” she said. “And, for many of us, it is also family history.”

The show’s entrance is a stone arch bracketed with projections of the continents—a doorway through the Atlantic. Immediately, a second map doubles the illusion: Hank Willis Thomas’s “A Place to Call Home” (2020), a stainless-steel mirror in the shape of Africa conjoined to North America by an imaginary isthmus. Nearby, in the British Guyanese painter Frank Bowling’s “Night Journey” (1969-1970), Africa and South America emerge from a primordial haze of colors. It’s an arresting welcome that evokes the dislocation of an ocean crossing, challenging visitors to navigate a world forged in the crucible of the Black Atlantic. The impressive stagecraft endows the exhibition with a questing tension, which resolves, in the final gallery, with the emergence of new solidarities, as visitors exit under David Hammons’s green, red, and black “African-American Flag” (1990).

In between, six sections—“Maps and Margins,” “Enslavements and Emancipations,” “Everyday Lives,” “Rites and Rhythms,” “Portraits,” and “Resistances and Activisms”—freely mix eras, genres, and cultures. At first, I was slightly skeptical of the wide selection, which seemed to risk flattening diverse traditions into an essentialist vision. But the show’s precision overcame my doubts. Anchored by specific historical convergences, from shared deities to analogous struggles with stigma and stereotype, “Afro-Atlantic Histories” also explores the creation of transnational unity by people of African descent. A shot from the Brazilian photographer Paulo Nazareth’s travel series “Cadernos de Africa (African Notebooks)” encapsulates the exhibition’s approach. Holding a sign marked “PRETO,” Portuguese for “black,” Nazareth stands next to a smiling African American man with a sign that reads “NEGRO”—two slurs bent into a bridge across the Americas.

The show moves by juxtaposition. One of the most striking moments pairs two figures in profile wearing metal collars: “Neck Leash (Who Shall Speak on Our Behalf?)” (2014) by the late Brazilian artist Sidney Amaral, and “Restraint” (2009) by Kara Walker. Amaral’s drawing, in pencil and watercolor, shows a man necklaced with microphones, which extend like weapons toward his defiantly shut eyes and pursed lips; Walker’s etching, almost the same size, depicts a woman trapped in a similar device strung with blades and bells. Both works draw a line between the anti-escape devices used to control the enslaved and the subtler constraints on contemporary Black dissent. Seductively encircled by invitations to betray themselves, the figures’ poise suggests an inner sovereignty, a refusal to submit to explanation.

In a nearby vitrine, a chilling British catalogue of punitive collars and masks lends archival gravity to Amaral’s and Walker’s compositions. Documentary artifacts—runaway-slave ads, bills of sale—feature throughout the exhibition, not merely as information but as an iconography that artists have revised. “The Scourged Back” (c. 1863), a famous photograph of a badly scarred fugitive taken at a Union Army camp, is flanked by two modern interpretations. Arthur Jafa’s “Ex-Slave Gordon” (2017) extrudes the original into a three-dimensional plastic sculpture, with thickly swollen wounds. Its disturbing corporeality finds a spectral counterpoint in a photograph by the Brazilian artist Eustáquio Neves, who restages the image with a contemporary model, replacing the long scars with ghostly projections of the word “Zumbi.” Zumbi was a legendary king of Palmares—Brazil’s largest quilombo, or settlement of fugitives from slavery—and his name inscribes resistance in what might otherwise scan as an image of suffering.

Julian Lucas
2022-05-04 15:26:24

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