The National Gallery opens the landmark exhibition Afro Atlantic Histories in the presence of Vice President Harris – 71Bait

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The first work that visitors to “Afro-Atlantic Histories” encounter is a nearly 2.10 meter high map made of stainless steel with a highly reflective surface. Hank Willis Thomas’ A Place to Call Home (Africa America Reflection) depicts an imaginary hemisphere in which North America is directly connected to Africa through the Isthmus of Panama, suggesting one of the central themes of the new National Gallery of Art exhibition : how the Atlantic slave trade transformed geography into a vast space of unclear and shifting identities.

The reflective surface means you can see yourself in the work, a common expression to engage audiences and invite them to confident reflection. But the size of the work means it creates an image not just of you but of the National Gallery, and that seems to be the point. This is a landmark show, the first to be greenlit by director Kaywin Feldman since she took office in 2019, and the first to make clear where she wants 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 with a stronger focus on Brazil was shown in 2018. Curator Kanitra Fletcher, then at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, created a smaller touring show with a broader geographic focus for Houston and the National Gallery, where she is now associate curator of African American and Afro-diasporic art.

At a panel discussion on April 8, Fletcher spoke about the importance of keeping this art — which encompasses centuries of colonial-era work, both by and about the African diaspora — not only in the National Gallery, but also in the gallery’s west to see buildings. The west building houses the museum’s treasury, with historical works tracing a canonical history since the early Renaissance. This canonical history has excluded or obliterated people of African descent, obscuring their presence and negating their history even on the rare occasions they are depicted in Western paintings and sculpture.

Afro-Atlantic Histories, then, has tremendous symbolic importance for the National Gallery, which must address and represent the art history of a large, multi-ethnic population. This symbolic change in the gallery’s identity was officially unveiled on April 7 when Vice President Harris spoke at a gala preview the same night that the Senate confirmed Ketanji Brown Jackson as the first African American woman to serve on the Supreme Court. The crowd, far more colorful than usual at National Gallery events, was dizzy. The museum’s founding room, right next to the main rotunda, has been transformed 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 superficially it dealt with the essential fact of Dutch involvement in colonialism and the slave trade. The exhibition focused on paintings and ship models, but in order to present the broader and darker history of Dutch wealth and prosperity, the curators should have included a wider range of material, including slavery documents and artefacts. In 2018, too, that would have been an institutional burden for the museum.

Now it addresses an even bigger and more painful story head-on, and with an entirely different curatorial and creative style.

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

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The National Gallery is traditionally an aesthetic museum, meaning its focus is on great work in scholarly exhibitions, with an exhibition style that tends to isolate and uplift art with a minimum of visual or textual intervention. This has made it difficult to engage with the story and social context, which require a wider range of documentary material and more fundamental explanations. The exhibition features classic paintings by Frédéric Bazille, Théodore Gericault and Eugène Delacroix in a section dedicated to portraiture. But also lithographs, photographs, a carte de visite and contemporary prints from archive material can be seen. Many images, including depictions of enslaved people made by European artists, are included not because they are artistically superb, but because they reveal Western and colonial prejudice and caricature.

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 half a decade of each other in the 1830s or 1840s, but they are strikingly different images of liberty. Jocelyn’s portrait depicts Cinqué in Greco-Roman garb, a handsome and heroic figure, shown shirtless and holding a staff. Raven’s image is smaller and features a central figure with arms raised, ecstatically welcoming freedom. But it’s an awkward image, almost cartoonish, reminiscent of crude caricatures of African Americans that circulated in the 19th and 20th centuries.

So did Jocelyn see and paint all the humanity of Cinqué while Raven just captured a grotesque European parody of anonymous characters? Or was Jocelyn just a better, more skilled painter? And what about the Greco-Roman filter? Was the better artist just as typographically vulnerable, just as oblivious to the actual human being, even if the resulting image is seemingly nobler?

There are captivating moments like this throughout the exhibition. A gallery devoted to religion and ritual combines an 18th-century polychrome statue of Saint 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 painted in 20th-century imagery.

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Episodic, Afro-Atlantic Histories raises more questions than it answers. The exhibition’s original focus on Brazil remains as an echo, suggesting another exhibition that may focus on the iconographic differences between emancipation in the United States and other countries, including Brazil, which did not liberate its enslaved people until 1888, points to a deeper look at the art of the Caribbean diaspora. The galleries devoted to religious work ask for a survey of syncretic spiritual imagery and the fluid lines between Christian and African religious representation.

Afro-Atlantic Histories is thus a first step, pointing to even earlier steps in 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 opposition 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, is not just to tell new or different stories. It is to weave them together with the older stories, properly complemented, that they already know how to tell. It finds a way forward that, like the reflective surface of the map of North America and Africa, draws everyone into its picture.

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