A VISUAL REVELATION, “Afro-Atlantic Histories” presents a sweeping account of the African Diaspora. The exhibition explores the “historical experiences and cultural formations” of Black people of African descent, across five centuries dating from the 17th century to the present. More than 130 works of art by artists from Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, and the Americas speak to the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade and its geographic and human outcomes.

“Afro-Atlantic Histories” was originally co-organized by Adriano Pedrosa with Ayrson Heráclito, Hélio Menezes, Lilia Moritz Schwarcz, and Tomás Toledo, in 2018 in Brazil, where it was presented across two institutions, the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP) and the Instituto Tomie Ohtake. In the United States, the show will be on view in Washington, D.C., Texas, and California. The landmark touring exhibition is curated by Kanitra Fletcher, who joined the National Gallery of Art in a newly created role as associate curator of African American and Afro Diasporic Art in February 2021.

 


Installation view of Afro-Atlantic Histories, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2022. Shown, mural-scale installation at right, ZANELE MUHOLI, “Ntozakhe II (Parktown),” 2016. | Courtesy National Gallery of Art

 

At the National Gallery in Washington, Fletcher co-curated the show with Molly Donovan, curator of contemporary art, 1975-present, and Steven Nelson, a professor and curator who serves of dean of the National Gallery of Art’s Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts (CASVA). “Afro-Atlantic Histories” unfolds across several galleries arranged around six themes: Maps and Margins; Enslavements and Emancipations; Everyday Lives; Rites and Rhythms; Portraits; and Resistance and Activisms.

The presentation features several new acquisitions, including a photographic self portrait by South African artist Zanele Muholi titled “Ntozakhe II, (Parktown)” (2016); “Current Forms: Yoruba Circle” (1969),” a painting by Maryland artist David Driskell (1931-2020); “A Place to Call Home (Africa America Reflection)” (2020), a stainless steel wall installation with a mirror finish by New York artist Hank Willis Thomas; Nigeria-born, Los Angeles-based Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s painting “Eko Skyscraper” (2019); and “Figura de Poder” (2020), a mixed-media sculpture by Puerto Rican artist Daniel Lind-Ramos.

In addition, selections by Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Aaron Douglas, Barley L. Hendricks, Lois Mailou Jones, Jacob Lawrence, Glenn Ligon, Kerry James Marshall, and Mickalene Thomas, among others, are drawn from the National Gallery’s existing holdings. Works spanning painting, sculpture, photography, drawings, and video, from many other public and private collections from throughout the diaspora are also on display.

I first viewed “Afro-Atlantic Histories” in April during a curator-led press tour with Fletcher, Nelson and Donovan. A few days later, Fletcher spoke with Culture Type by phone. The expansive conversation explored how the Brazilian exhibition came to be presented in the United States, the ways in which the works on view capture both the artists’s expressions and the history and culture of the African Diaspora, and Fletcher’s new curatorial role at the National Gallery of Art:

 


Kanitra Fletcher is organizing the U.S. presentation of “Afro-Atlantic Histories.” The exhibition has been presented at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and will also travel to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Dallas Museum of Art. Fletcher joined the National Gallery of Art as associate curator of African American and Afro Diasporic art in February 2021. | Courtesy National Gallery of Art

 

CULTURE TYPE: If you were talking to someone who didn’t really know much about art or even the history of slavery across the Atlantic and its legacy, how would you describe this exhibition?

KANITRA FLETCHER: The first thing I would say is that it’s really dealing with the breadth and the complexity of the African Diaspora and really thinking about how integral Black people and Black culture have been to the development of the modern West. It’s not just about slavery, but really what has been born from that terrible experience, what’s developed from the transatlantic slave trade.

I think what they need to really learn from the exhibition is how art responds to those official and overlooked narratives. How earlier works by European artists have later been challenged and complicated by later works by Black artists who really complicate the stories and show us how many different voices and lives and experiences contribute to the history of the African Diaspora. It isn’t just one grand narrative or one singular way of understanding it. It’s really about how all these histories and people and groups are intertwined. How the African Diaspora comprises all these voices and lives and experiences.

You mentioned the representations made by European artists. I didn’t have a chance to see the show in Brazil, but I heard about it and read about it, and I had an assumption that all the art was by Black artists of African descent. But that’s not the case. It’s interesting to see the works of European artists and their interpretations. Can you give an example, within the exhibition, where you have a European artist’s work that is countered in some way by one of the Black artists or some of the Black artists in the exhibition?

The first one that comes to mind, it’s not exactly a European artist, but it’s an image of “The Scourged Back” (circa 1863). It was taken by a white photographer. The enslaved man Gordon had fled from slavery and landed in, I believe, Louisiana with scars on his back from being whipped. And so they took a picture of him, of his back, and it circulated for abolitionist purposes and it became famous and it was only titled the Scorched Back. His personhood was erased, but it was used for admirable purposes. But nonetheless, it’s still dehumanizing. He became an icon, not an individual.

With that important work, Arthur Jafa responds to it by creating a three-dimensional work, blowing him up, large scale and having those wounds be raised. It’s this really visceral wall sculpture that really impresses upon you the individuality of this person and also the trauma that he experienced. What I think is important is that he uses his name in the title (“Ex-Slave Gordon”). He asserts his actual personhood. I think that that’s an important connection. It’s not necessarily countering the work, but it’s complicating it or expanding upon it and making us look at it from a different perspective, a more humanistic perspective.

“I think what they need to really learn from the exhibition is how art responds to those official and overlooked narratives. It’s really about how all these histories and people and groups are intertwined. How the African Diaspora comprises all these voices and lives and experiences.”
— Kanitra Fletcher

 


Installation view of Afro-Atlantic Histories, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2022. Shown, in foreground, “The Freedman” (1862-63) bronze sculpture by JOHN QUINCY ADAMS WARD, in background, from left, NATHANIEL JOCELYN, “Portrait of Cinqué” (1839-40) and SAMUEL RAVEN, “Celebrating the Emancipation of Slaves in British Dominions, 1834” (circa 1834).. | Courtesy National Gallery of Art

 


Installation view of Afro-Atlantic Histories, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2022. Shown, far right, ARTHUR JAFA, “Ex-slave Gordon,” 2017, with “Into Bondage” (1936) by AARON DOUGLAS, at center. | Courtesy National Gallery of Art

 

I want to talk about your role in the exhibition. My understanding is that when MASP co-organized the show in Brazil, an MFA Houston curator saw it. And then from there, the idea of bringing it to the United States came about, is that right?

I think an MFA (Houston) curator saw the show and/or received the catalog. I don’t know which and then it got to me through the director. Yeah. The director’s office sent it to me and so I looked at it. And then I went back to the director’s office and said, “Yes, I would like to do this show and think about how it could come to America.”

At that point, when you made the decision that MFA Houston should show the exhibition, had you seen it in person in Brazil yet?

No. No. It was purely based on the catalog and in my knowledge of some of the works as well. Thinking about the organization of it was really exciting. I hadn’t actually seen the works in person yet.

Did you ever see the show in Brazil, eventually?

I did not because it had already closed.

The show was in 2018 in Brazil, and there was a gap in the schedule, in terms of it not coming to the United States right away. What was that due to?

The show was never intended to travel to the United States. That was what the director and I in Houston initiated. We were like, “Let’s bring this to the States.” It was never in the plans when the show originally opened in Brazil.

What was the timing of that? When did you first see the catalog and tell your director, “We should do this show.” What year was that?

Good Lord. That’s a good question. It’s been so long. I think it was late 2019. That feels right, because I know when I finally had the first meeting with MASP, with Adriano (Pedrosa), the artistic director there, that was in Miami at Art Basel. It must have been December 2019. That’s the only date that makes sense. Because the next year, the following year, we would’ve been in quarantine.

 


AARON DOUGLAS, “Into Bondage,” 1936 (oil on canvas). | National Gallery of Art, Corcoran Collection (museum purchase and partial gift from Thurlow Evans Tibbs, Jr., The Evans-Tibbs Collection). © 2021 Heirs of Aaron Douglas / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Right Society (ARS), NY

 


DANIEL LIND-RAMOS, “Figura de Poder,” 2016–2020 (mirrors, concrete blocks, cement bag, sledgehammer, construction stones bag, paint bucket, wood panels, palm tree trunk, burlap, leather, ropes, sequin, awning, plastic ropes, fabric, trumpet, pins, duct tape, maracas, sneaker, tambourine, working gloves, boxing gloves, acrylic). | National Gallery of Art, Washington New Century Fund 2022.6.1 © Daniel Lind-Ramos

 

Let’s talk about your curatorial career during that period. You were at MFA Houston and then joined the National Gallery of Art. Was the National Gallery originally involved in “Afro-Atlantic Histories”? Or did that come about because you took a position there?

I was at Houston working on this show. We were going to partner with a different museum, but that didn’t work out. And so it was kind of undetermined whether or not we’d be able to go forward. Then we got this incredible grant from the Ford Foundation and we were able to do the show, but of course still wanted to find a partner to make it an actual tour. That was when we approached the National Gallery and Kaywin Feldman, our director, thankfully, got on board.

I was still in Houston and it wasn’t even a twinkle in my eye, the National Gallery. I just thought I’m going to be working on this show in Houston and then it’ll go off to the curatorial colleagues at the National Gallery and that’s Steven Nelson and Molly Donovan. They were working on the show and then through the course of working on the show, they started looking for an associate curator for the museum. A couple people sent the posting to me and said you should consider it. I did, and then I got the position.

Of course, Steven and Molly had been already working on this show and so they had made a few choices, different from what was being shown in Houston. They were all great choices. The show was a little different because they were using works from the National Gallery’s collection. I wasn’t as familiar with the National Gallery collection at that time. It was really an exciting, welcome surprise to see what they had selected. We continued still to refine it and to make a few changes together.

 


HEITOR DOS PRAZERES, “Musicians,” circa 1950s (oil on canvas). | Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand – MASP Gift of Rafael Moraes in the context of the exhibitions Histories of Dance, 2020

 


PAULO NZARETH, “Untitled from the series For Sale,” 2011 (photo print on cotton paper). | Collection Galeria Mendes Wood DM, São Paulo, Brazil

 

I’m curious about the transition of the show from Brazil to the United States. From a curatorial standpoint, given the theme of the show, did you think about it with a different lens for the U.S. audience?

I did. That’s right. The show in Brazil, I would say it was very Brazil centric. They were thinking about their audiences, understandably. Some of the changes I made were to think about, well, at that time I was in Houston. So thinking about the Houston community, where there is a sizeable Brazilian population, but I was thinking about the Black and Latinx communities that would be going to see the show. I did expand in some ways on the U.S. selections or the U.S.-based artist selections a bit. I kept some of the more familiar names in the show, but I did want to keep the younger Brazilian artists who are less known in the states because you know, this is an exciting opportunity for them to be seen in the States.

They’re also thinking in terms of global ideas about Blackness and I thought that it was important to have them represented, these later generations, how they’re connecting to these historical themes. What else? There were two sections that I decided to take out. One was called Roots and Trances and that was really thinking of connections between Bahia and Haiti and Jamaica, I believe. While that was fascinating, I didn’t know that it would particularly resonate, as well, for U.S.-based audiences. Also, it was only dealing with three areas of the Diaspora and not the global view of the African diaspora the way that the rest of the sections were operating.

I also took out the Afro-Atlantic Modernism section which was another fantastic section, but it was smaller. It was dealing with art historical movements rather than narratives of people and stories about people. Also, it was really about a 30-year span — I think it was from the 1940s to 1970s — not the 400-year span that the other sections have, from the 17th century to today. But I did move a few works from those sections into other sections.

 


BARRINGTON WATSON, “Conversation,” 1981 (oil on canvas). | National Gallery of Jamaica, gift of Workers’ Savings & Loan Bank. © Estate of Barrington Watson

 


Installation view of Afro-Atlantic Histories, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2022. Shown, in foreground ELIZABETH CATLETT (“Reclining Female Nude,” 1955) from left, Works by DINDGA MCCANNON (“Empress Akweke,” 1975); MICKALENE THOMAS (“Melody: Back,” 2011); and WILLIAM H. JOHNSON (“Little Girl in Green,” circa 1941). | Courtesy National Gallery of Art

 

How difficult was it when you worked on transitioning the exhibition from Brazil to the United States to reduce it from the 450 works down to 130? Was it 130 in Houston too, as it is at the National Gallery of Art?

It was approximately, I would say no more than 150 (in Houston). It was very difficult. I mean, look, if I had it my way, we would’ve kept every one of them, 400 and something works in the show. They’re all incredible choices and strong pieces, but the reality of it is that we didn’t have the space for it. They had a tighter hang in Brazil, also. When you see the installation images, you can see that they put a lot into one space. It depends on your taste. Some people like that tight hang. Some don’t.

I wanted to give the spaces a little more breathing room. It was very difficult. I really did think hard and long about what works. Of course, I looked at the works that I personally love and wanted to keep in the show. But, I did want to keep the integrity of the original show to make sure that there is a representation of many different nations. I think we were successful in that regard.

You have a master’s degree in Latin American studies with an emphasis on art history and Brazilian studies. Was that part of the connection for you? Talk about that background and how your academic experience informed your work on this exhibition.

Oh yeah. I mean, there was absolutely selfish interest here. One, I have an interest in Brazilian art and Black Brazilian culture. So I thought it was important to bring this show to the States. One of the reasons that I was excited about it was also because it created this opportunity to disrupt the centering of Black Americans in histories and to present a global understanding of Blackness, that engages the struggles of Black resilience. Because the racial politics of their histories and their experiences have been clouded by this myth of the racial democracy that suggests that Black and white Brazilians live in harmony and that no racism exists in Brazil.

A lot of people don’t know that that is not the case. Even many Black Americans believe this myth that there’s no racism in Brazil. A lot of people are not aware of the numerous parallels of social and political struggles related to slavery and discrimination between the two countries. Well, really amongst all the countries represented in the show. That was one of my goals. In some small way to get that point across.

People also don’t understand that only 6 percent of enslaved Africans arrived in the United States. Most enslaved Africans ended up in South America and the Caribbean. It’s really just a strange development that so many people believe that Americans, Black Americans are the center of Blackness, of the African Diaspora. It’s just really not the case. I think the breadth of this show, the complexity of it, helps get that point across to correct the traditional history that we’ve been taught.

“People also don’t understand that only 6 percent of enslaved Africans arrived in the United States. Most enslaved Africans ended up in South America and the Caribbean. So many people believe that Americans, Black Americans are the center of Blackness, of the African Diaspora. It’s just really not the case.” — Kanitra Fletcher

 


Installation view of FIRELEI BÁEZ, “Given the ground (the fact that it amazes me does not mean that I relinquish it),” 2017 (acrylic on canvas), “Afro-Atlantic Histories,” National Gallery of Art, 2022. | Collection of Kelly Williams and Andrew Forsyth, © Firelei Báez. Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

 


DJANIRA DA MOTTA E SILVA, “Feira da Bahia [Bahia Market],” 1979 (oil on canvas). | Private Collection – Salvador/BA

 

Presenting that history, correcting those assumptions is critical and a really important aspect of the exhibition. Some of that work is done with an infographic in the first gallery. It’s a map that shows different sized spots representing where slaves landed, with a really large spot in Brazil. Was that map included in the Brazil version of the exhibition?

No, I don’t believe so. That was something we developed.

It’s such as an important visual that also emphasizes that this exhibition presents an artistic legacy for Black, global expression, but it also is very much, as you were talking about, exposing some of the history and reality of what’s gone on with Black people going back to the 17th century. It really does help inform an audience that may not be aware of some of the specifics of that history, beyond America.

Oh, absolutely. I want people to learn and to be educated to some degree. But also at the same time, I do want them to enjoy the artwork. It’s an interesting balance, but I think that it’s important to have these facts available, especially right now with all this talk about politicians, talk about history and what’s being taught. There are facts (laughs). There are things that actually happened. Any opportunity that we can get to educate them on those facts, I welcome. Happy to do it. But just finding a way to balance the beauty of the work and the complexity and the differences, the differences between the voices, but then also have these real facts about the realities of these histories is important.

 


The catalog published to accompany the U.S. version of Afro-Atlantic Histories is fully illustrated, including images of artworks on display in the Brazil exhibition and an essay by Kanitra Fletcher titled “Occupy: Self Portraiture.” | Published by DelMonico Books/Museu de Arte de São Paulo (Dec. 7, 2021), 385 pages

 

Your essay in the exhibition catalog is about self-portraiture. Why did you choose to write on that topic and how does self-portraiture speak to or represent the histories that are presented in this show?

I had been doing research during my doctoral program and I thought I was going to write about self-portraiture for my dissertation. I had been doing research about it prior to this exhibition. And then when I looked at the works that were in the exhibition, I saw how many of the works fit into these categories, these major categories of self-portraiture, like masquerade, about the erasure of the self, and all those different aspects of self portraiture. That’s really why I decided to write on it. Self portraiture is one of those genres that’s really, there’s a traditional way of understanding it, but a lot of people don’t understand how artists have really reinvented and reimagined ways of seeing the self.

I thought that would be an important way of really explaining to people how these stories and these histories are not far removed from the lives of the artists themselves. By having self portraiture in this show we’re saying artists aren’t up in their ivory towers, distanced from the realities and off in their imagination. No, they’re really living these histories. These histories resonate with them every day. And by having themselves in the exhibition, they’re showing that connection, how deep and how personal it actually is.

 


SAMUEL FOSSO, “Self‐Portrait (as Liberated American Woman of the ’70s),” 1997, printed 2003 (chromogenic print). | The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum purchase funded by Nina and Michael Zilkha. © 1997 Samuel Fosso, courtesy JM. Patras / Paris

 


ZANELE MUHOLI, “Ntozakhe II, (Parktown),” 2016 (photographic wall mural from digital file). | National Gallery of Art, Washington Alfred H. Moses and Fern M. Schad Fund 2021.88.1 © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of the artist, Yancey Richardson, New York, and Stevenson Cape Town / Johannesburg

 

In the gallery where the portraits are on display, there is a huge mural-size image from (South African photographer) Zanele Muholi. It’s monumental. Covering an entire wall, it’s the central image in the gallery. Is this the first time it has been displayed at that size?

That’s my understanding, yes. This was acquired by our photography department. The curator there said she learned that from the gallery, that that’s the largest it’s ever been displayed.

I’ve seen that self-portrait, that image by Muholi before, just never on that large of a scale. It’s in the National Gallery’s collection. How does that work? It’s digital image and it can be shown or produced at any size and for effect in this exhibition you wanted to show it large?

Yeah, you can print it at any scale, as I understand it. I saw that wall and I said, why don’t we just cover that wall with her? You know, we can do anything. We can have any size we want. And she’s, you know, like a Statue of Liberty, which is a grand scale, right? So why shouldn’t she be just as grand scale? (Editor’s note: Muholi uses they/them pronouns).

 


National Gallery of Art (April 7, 2022): Guided by curator Kanitra Fletcher (far right), Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband, Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, preview “Afro-Atlantic Histories” exhibition, including works by Glenn Ligon (“Untitled (I Am a Man),” 1988, left) and Alma Thomas (“March on Washington,” 1964, in background). Vice President Harris spoke at the exhibition’s opening gala. | Official White House Photo. Photo by Lawrence Jackson

 

I want to learn more about your position at the National Gallery of Art, associate curator of African American and Afro Diasporic art. What does the title mean and what is the focus of the position?

Well, one of the main things—”Afro Atlantic Histories” is an example of it—is to bring exhibitions here that feature and highlight the work of the African Diaspora and African American artists. But I think one of the main goals and intentions is for me, in collaboration with my colleagues, to expand the collection, to broaden and deepen its representation of Black artists and to really have our collection reflect the nation.

In other countries, the National Gallery is where you find those nation’s treasures. It is meant to reflect the history and the forms of expression of a nation. So that’s what I’ve been tasked to do and it’s been exciting. We’ve brought in a few new acquisitions. Betye Saar, she’s finally represented by a sculpture, the medium that she’s known for, as well as Melvin Edwards, another artist who is known for sculpture. He was only represented by a print up to this point. Now he’s represented by four of his Lynch fragments, his famous series. David Driskell is also now in the collection.

Is that the first time that David Driskell has been represented in the collection?

No, there were works on paper. There are prints. This is the first painting. Faith Ringgold (“The American People Series #18: The Flag is Bleeding,” 1967). That was a joint effort, by the way, not just me. James Meyer, one of the other curators (curator of art, 1945–1974) and I worked on that, which is very exciting. I’ve really been tasked with working on the collection, thinking about who to add and what’s important for me right now, I’m thinking about those artists for which it is long overdue for them to be in the collection, who have been working for decades. You know, five, six decades like Ringgold and Edwards. These are people who should have been in the collection a long time ago. (Editor’s Note: A different work by Faith Ringgold is featured in “Afro-Atlantic Histories,” a 1983 painted quilt “Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima?,” from the collection of Glenstone Museum in Potomac, Md.)

I’m so thrilled that they are now and that our director is supporting these acquisitions, because another important thing to think about is that this collection is permanent, literally permanent. We do not deacession here. These are works that are meant to be preserved and cared for, for eternity. And so I really think that’s important to have them in the collection, to make sure that they are forever representative of our nation’s art. And with that, acquiring works, you’re also thinking about how do we display them? The traditional histories, the Picasso to Rothko story, that is one story, that’s one history of art. There are so many more, so many more artists and movements and collectives. I think it’s going to be really exciting to start to have those stories alongside those traditional stories in the galleries.

 


KERRY JAMES MARSHALL, “Voyager,” 1992 (acrylic and collage on canvas). | National Gallery of Art, Corcoran Collection (Gift of the Women’s Committee of the Corcoran Gallery of Art). © Kerry James Marshall

 


Installation view of Afro-Atlantic Histories, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2022. Shown, Entrance to exhibition with “A Place to Call Home (Africa America Reflection)” (2020) by HANK WILLIS THOMAS, at center in far background. | Courtesy National Gallery of Art

 

One of the new acquisitions featured in the exhibition is by Hank Willis Thomas, “A Place to Call Home, Africa America Reflection” (2020). It’s installed front and center at the beginning of the exhibition. Why did you make that choice?

In 2020, he developed this work, the mirrored stainless steel one and entitled it “Africa America Reflection.” This is a fiction, in that it is showing what he’s calling an African American continent. In the work, North America is connected, well nearly connected, to Africa, not south America. With this work, he has said that he was thinking about how African Americans have this mythical idea about Africa, this distant homeland where they’re meant to be.

And then they go to Africa and are quickly disabused of that notion and feel very American when they’re in Africa. But then at the same time in America, the reason that they had this mythical idea about Africa is because in their own country, in America, they often don’t feel at home because of histories and experiences of racism and discrimination.

(Hank Willis Thomas) said he wanted to create “A Place to Call Home,” a place for African Americans to call home. He definitely has a Black viewer in mind for this work. We wanted to put it at the front of the exhibition so that you are seeing yourself immediately in relation to this Afro-diasporic condition and to create this sense of empathy across cultures. To really think about their position within African diasporic histories and to think about their place and how they relate to these ideas and to this condition, and to think about what it means for people who experience that condition personally.

It just seemed like a really great way for people to engage and to really see that they are entering… I mean, when you walk in, you literally see yourself entering Africa. Right? And just to know that this is about you, too. It’s not about if you are Black. This still is about you, to see yourself in this and to see that you’re a part of this history, as well. Your perspective on it, your life and your voice on this matters just as much. That’s reflected because we were talking about, there are more than Black voices on view or Black artists on view in this show. Everyone has a perspective on this.

 


FRANK BOWLING, “Night Journey,” 1969–70 (acrylic on canvas). | The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, gift of Maddy and Larry Mohr, 2011. © 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London

 


Installation view of Afro-Atlantic Histories, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2022. Shown, at center, ROMARE BEARDEN collage (“Tomorrow I May Be Far Away,” 1967) alongside “School Studies” (1944) by HORACE PIPPIN (on right). | Courtesy National Gallery of Art

 

Echo Skyscraper, the portrait by Njideka Akunyili Crosby. That’s a really interesting painting because it’s so different from what she usually does, in terms of the scale and perspective, but also how she is working with color, washing the portrait in this like over-exposed neon hue of orange. What is this portrait about and how does it fit into the scope of her practice?

I know that she was looking at archival photographs and she was struck by the image of this young girl, this Nigerian girl that’s pictured and her hairstyle. The title refers to, Echo, which I believe is the name, of Lagos or another word for Lagos…

I have it here, the exhibition label says, “Echo refers to Lagos, the Nigerian city where the artist attended middle school. While skyscraper alludes to the figure’s threaded structured hairstyle featured in the 1967 photograph taken in Kisangani, Congo, in 1967 by Eliot Elisofon.

How it relates to her current work, she’s always looking at archives and historical imagery and popular cultural imagery and bringing them all together to illuminate her own life and thinking about ways to integrate that literally into the image. I think it’s really interesting that she’s thinking about this young girl, thinking beyond her own personal situation. Because when I think of her work, I think about the imagery of her family and her husband and how she’s telling those stories using an accumulation of images from different places, from her past and from African culture. She’s always integrating all those works, but with this, I think she’s just layering in a new and different way, a less obvious way than the previous works.

 


NJIDEKA AKUNYILI CROSBY, “Eko Skyscraper,” 2019 (acrylic and color pencil on panel). | National Gallery of Art, Purchased with support from the Ford Foundation. © Njideka Akunyili Crosby. Image courtesy the artist, Victoria Miro, and David Zwirner

 


Unidentified Artist, “Don Miguel de Castro, Emissary of Kongo,” circa 1643 (oil on panel). | Statens Museum for Kunst (SMK), Copenhagen

 

I’m going back to portraiture again, when you were talking about the sort of trans-historical connections, and I’m looking at the Dom Miguel portrait and the Barkley Hendricks portrait (“George Jules Taylor,” 1972), which are both on view in the Portraits section of “Afro-Atlantic Histories.” Two male portraits made more than 300 years apart. One a traditional portrait from the shoulders up, the other a full standing figure. Both subjects have a proud confident mien and both are wearing capes and some kind of hat. It’s an interesting relationship. One’s very formal and sort of regal in its intention. Hendricks’s is regal too, in his demeanor, but more casual and stylish in terms of his dress. It’s fascinating to see those sorts of connections across centuries.

What’s also interesting, I want to point out something about the Don Miguel portrait. When you look at the painting, you’re struck by the finery and the silver sash and the beading and all these European elements. It has come to my attention that what he’s wearing are Congolese textiles or patterns. Rick Powell told me that one of his students was looking at it and I believe she is Congolese. And she saw something that said to her that that was a Congolese pattern or textile that he’s wearing. I think that’s fascinating because he was asserting his African-ness, blending it into his attire, and saying that it’s not only the European elements that make my status known, it’s also my African-ness. That’s how I’m thinking about it anyway.

Are the African patterns in the strap across his chest or on the shirtsleeves underneath the cloak?

That’s what I need to get more information out, but I believe it’s the, let me go find the image. I think it is on the sleeves. You see those knots? I’m thinking it’s that?

I imagine “Afro-Atlantic Histories” is a real high point in terms of your career and you are really just getting started. Now that it’s up at the National Gallery, how do you feel about it, and what you want visitors to take away from it.

Oh my gosh. I mean so much is happening this week that it’s hard to even answer that question because I haven’t had a chance to sit back and really reflect on it yet to be honest (laughs). But I do feel, I mean I’m absolutely excited. Yes. And thrilled that it is here now. It’s been three years in the making, for the Washington presentation anyway.

There were these moments where you’re walking the galleries and you’re like, okay, well this is where normally Manets and Seurats are shown. These are the Mellon galleries. These esteemed galleries and in the West Building, no less, where it’s mainly been traditional European art on view. And to see these works by these incredibly important artists who are incredibly important in their own homelands, but are really not… I mean, are almost unknown in the States. They are less known in the States.

To see them celebrated in this way, in that architecture of the Mellon galleries hanging high and with this incredible design that our designers created for the exhibition, it’s overwhelming in a lot of ways. The Haitian artist, George Valris should be here tonight and I’m just so thrilled that he’ll be able to see his sequin banner (“Erzulie La Flambeau (St. Martha),” circa 2013) in the Mellon galleries in the West Building at this major institution. I get chills thinking about when he’ll get here tonight to see that. So yeah. It’s amazing.

It’s really moving to hear you express it that way. I want to go back to what you said about the West Building, because most of the modern and contemporary art is ordinarily shown in the East Building, right?

Right. So for this show it was decided to do it differently this time. To think about how, like I was saying earlier, how integral Black people and cultures are to the modern West. It could not exist without Black people and Black cultures to help build it and maintain it. So they should be celebrated on these walls in the same way. CT

 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

Kanitra Fletcher organized the U.S. tour of “Afro-Atlantic Histories,” which is traveling to four venues. After opening at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (Oct. 24, 2021-Jan. 17, 2022), “Afro-Atlantic Histories” is on view at the National Gallery of Art (April 10-July 17, 2022). The exhibition will be presented later this year at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Dec. 11, 2022–April 30, 2023) and next year at the Dallas Museum of Art (dates to be announced soon).

 


Installation view of Afro-Atlantic Histories, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2022. Shown, DANIEL LIND-RAMOS, “Figura de Poder,” 2016–2020 (foreground); DAVID HAMMONS, “African American Flag,” 1990 (above); and FAITH RINNGOLD, “Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima?,” 1983 (at left). | Courtesy National Gallery of Art

 


National Gallery of Art curators Kanitra Fletcher, Molly Donovan, and Steven Nelson introduce “Afro-Atlantic Histories.” | Video by National Gallery of Art

 

BOOKSHELF
Published on the occasion of the U.S. presentation of the exhibition, the catalog “Afro-Atlantic Histories” features works dating from the 17th to 21st centuries by more than 200 artists from Africa, the Americas, the Caribbean, and Europe. The U.S. version of the landmark museum show focuses on about 130 works of art. This expansive volume reflects the international presentation, including the wider selection of more than 400 works shown at the São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP) and , where the exhibition originated in Brazil. The cover reflects the volume’s modern graphic design and palette and features “Zeferina” (2018), a portrait painted by Brazilian artist Dalton Paula. This volume is a virtual Afro-Atlantic canon. Essay contributors include co-editors Adriano Pedrosa and Tomás Toledo, along with Vivian Crockett, Kanitra Fletcher, Ayrson Heráclito, Hélio Menezes, Lilia Moritz Schwarcz, and Deborah Willis.

 

SUPPORT CULTURE TYPE
Do you enjoy and value Culture Type? Please consider supporting its ongoing production by making a donation. Culture Type is an independent art history project that requires countless hours and expense to research, report, write, and produce. To help sustain it, make a one-time donation or sign up for a recurring monthly contribution. It only takes a minute. Many Thanks for Your Support.