National Gallery opens landmark ‘Afro Atlantic Histories’ show, with Vice President Harris in attendance

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The first work that visitors to “Afro-Atlantic Histories” encounter is a map, nearly 7 feet tall, made of stainless steel with a highly reflective surface. Hank Willis Thomas’s “A Place to Call Home (Africa America Reflection)” represents an imaginary hemisphere, in which North America is linked by the Isthmus of Panama directly to Africa, suggesting one of the central themes of the new National Gallery of Art exhibition: how the Atlantic slave trade refashioned geography into a vast, in-between space of unsettled and shifting identities.

The reflective surface means you can see yourself in the work, a common trope for engaging audiences and inviting them to self-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. This is a landmark show, the first one greenlighted by Director Kaywin Feldman since she assumed her role in 2019, and the first one to give a clear sense of where she would like to take one of the country’s most prestigious arts institutions.

“Afro-Atlantic Histories” was originally developed by the Sao Paulo Museum of Art, where a larger version, more heavily focused on Brazil, was seen in 2018. Curator Kanitra Fletcher, then at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, configured a smaller touring show, with a broader geographical focus, for Houston and the National Gallery, where she is now associate curator of African American and Afro-diasporic art.

At a panel conversation on April 8, Fletcher talked about the importance of seeing this art — which includes centuries of work dating back to the colonial era, both by and about the African diaspora — not just at the National Gallery, but in the gallery’s West Building. The West Building houses the museum’s treasure trove of historical work, tracing a canonical history from the early Renaissance. That canonical history has excluded or erased people of African descent, obscuring their presence and negating their histories even in the rare cases when they are depicted in Western paintings and sculpture.

So, “Afro-Atlantic Histories” has tremendous symbolic importance for the National Gallery, which must appeal to and represent the art history of a large, multiethnic population. That symbolic shift in the gallery’s identity was given official imprimatur on April 7, when Vice President Harris spoke at a gala preview on the same night that Ketanji Brown Jackson was confirmed by the Senate as the first African American woman to sit on the Supreme Court. The crowd, which was far more diverse than usual at National Gallery events, was giddy. The museum’s Founder’s Room, just off the main rotunda, was turned into a nightclub, with dancing.

Four years ago, when I visited a small exhibition of Dutch maritime art at the museum, I was struck by how cursorily it dealt with the essential fact of Dutch involvement in colonialism and the slave trade. The show focused on paintings and ship models, but to represent the larger and darker history of Dutch wealth and prosperity, the curators would have had to include a broader range of material, including documents and artifacts of slavery. Even in 2018, that would have been an institutional stretch for the museum.

Now, it is addressing an even larger and more painful history head-on, and with a greatly different curatorial and design style.

The walls are full of text, explaining the broad themes of the show and particular details of the works on view. We learn about quilombos, communities in Brazil that offered refuge to escaped enslaved people, including Quilombo dos Palmares, which survived nearly a century until it was suppressed by the Portuguese in 1694. And about an 18th-century slave market at New York’s Wall Street, where humans were traded for half a century before the American Revolution. And, from an early-19th-century watercolor, about a mask used to prevent enslaved people from eating dirt, a form of protest and slow suicide.

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The National Gallery has traditionally been an aesthetic museum, meaning its focus is on great work in scholarly exhibitions with a display style that tends to isolate and elevate art with a minimum of visual or textual intrusion. That has made it difficult to grapple with history and social context, which require a wider range of documentary material, and more basic explanation. There are classic painted works by Frédéric Bazille, Théodore Gericault and Eugène Delacroix in the exhibition, in a section devoted to portraiture. But there are also lithographs, photographs, a carte de visite and contemporary prints of archival material. Many images, including those depicting enslaved people made by European artists, are included not because they are artistically great, but because they reveal Western and colonial prejudices and caricatures.

All of this makes for some stunning juxtapositions, including Nathaniel Jocelyn’s portrait of Cinqué, leader of the Amistad rebellion, with Samuel Raven’s “Celebrating the Emancipation of Slaves in British Dominions.” They were made within about a half-decade of each other, in the 1830s or 1840, but they are strikingly different images of freedom. Jocelyn’s portrait depicts Cinque in Greco-Roman garb, a handsome and heroic figure seen half-bare-chested, clutching a staff. Raven’s image is smaller, showing a central figure with his arms raised, ecstatically greeting freedom. But it is a clumsy image, almost cartoonlike, suggesting crude caricatures of African Americans that would circulate throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

So, did Jocelyn see and paint the full humanity of Cinqué, while Raven captured only a grotesque European parody of anonymous figures? Or was Jocelyn simply a better, more skilled painter? And what about the Greco-Roman filter? Was the better artist equally prone to typecasting, equally blind to the actual human being, even if the resulting image is seemingly more noble?

There are arresting moments like this throughout the exhibition. A gallery devoted to religion and ritual pairs an 18th-century polychrome statue of St. Benedict of Palermo with a 1962 abstraction by Rubem Valentim that suggests the cosmology of Afro-Brazilian religious symbolism. Here we have a wonderful confusion of art and status, a classic statue of the first saint of African descent, whose robe is gilded, and a painting made in a 20th-century visual language that has very different connotations of elite representation.

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“Afro-Atlantic Histories” is episodic, raising more questions than it answers. The exhibition’s original focus on Brazil remains as an echo, suggesting another exhibition that might focus on the iconographic differences between emancipation in the United States and other countries, including Brazil, which didn’t free its enslaved people until 1888. Another room, devoted to Everyday life, points to a deeper look at the art of the Caribbean diaspora. The galleries devoted to religious work beg for a survey of syncretic spiritual imagery and the fluid lines between Christian and African religious representation.

So, “Afro-Atlantic Histories” is a first step, pointing to yet more early steps in what will be a long and fruitful exploration of art very different from that which has traditionally been the focus of the National Gallery. It won’t be easy, and not just because there may be institutional and traditionalist resistance to the journey.

The challenge for the National Gallery, like other museums with vast collections of Western art and a robust scholarly and curatorial superstructure, isn’t just to tell new or different stories. It is to weave them with the older stories, properly amended, that they already know how to tell. It is finding a way forward that, like the reflective surface of the map of North America and Africa, incorporates everyone in its image.

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