Past, present collide as National Gallery of Art presents Afro-Atlantic Histories exhibition

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Afro-Atlantic Histories' (Part 1)

When was the last time you made it down to an art museum on the National Mall?

The National Gallery of Art presents “Afro-Atlantic Histories” now through July 17.

“Afro-Atlantic Histories is an exhibition that tells and retells the complex histories of the Afro-Atlantic diaspora, histories of forced migration from Africa through the Transatlantic Slave Trade … how artists have responded to these histories,” National Gallery of Art Dean of the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts Steven Nelson told WTOP.

The exhibition is located on the main floor of the West Building in Galleries 72 to 79.

“There are more than 130 objects, including artists from over 20 countries, the time span from the 17th century to the present,” Nelson said. “The United States, Brazil, Haiti, South Africa, Ghana, people born in the Caribbean, people from all over the Americas. … Painting, sculpture, works on paper, installation and time-based art, so there’s video.”

These art pieces include “Ntozahke II (Parktown)” by Zanele Muholi from 2016.

“This work is part of a larger series in which the artist depicts themself as different Black heroes,” Nelson said. “They look at archetypical representations of heroism, usually occupied by white people, the Statue of Liberty, the image of Columbia … and put a Black person in their place. This image, 12-feet high, takes the guise of the Statue of Liberty.”

Another piece is “Current Forms: Yoruba Circle” by David Driskell from 1969.

“What is so fascinating about this work is that it shows us how the artist is exploring his relationship to the African continent,” Nelson said. “‘Yoruba Circle’ is a really good example [where] Africa becomes a source of making a strong, proud African American identity. The artist was looking at Yoruba spirituality, Yoruba deities and art objects made in Yoruba.”

You’ll also see Samuel Fosso’s “Self-Portrait (as Liberated American Woman of the ’70s).”

“Fosso is an artist born in Nigeria,” Nelson said. “In his pictures, which are always self portraits, Fosso reimagines himself in different guises, many taking cues from American pop culture. Here, what you see is a gender-non-specific image of the artist as what he would imagine as a very glamorous, career-oriented American woman of the 1970s.”

You also don’t want to miss “Into Bondage” by Aaron Douglas from 1936.

“Aaron Douglas was one of the best-known Harlem Renaissance artists,” Nelson said. “This image [is] one of his Afro-Deco works, a modernist take on Black people being forcibly taken out of Africa and being sent across the Atlantic through the Middle Passage. You have a figure looking at what could be interpreted as the North Star.”

The works are not arranged chronologically, but rather thematically.

“You’ll see historic objects placed next to contemporary works, a juxtaposition so we start seeing conversations (A) across time and (B) across geography,” Nelson said. “There’s one corner where there’s a 19th century photo of an enslaved person … his scarred back during the Civil War, and on either side, two contemporary artists looking at that photo.”

April 30 brings the Afro-Atlantic Histories Festival with live performances, local art market, art-making showcases and a cooking demonstration by Executive Chef Christopher Curtis. In May, Jason Moran, Artistic Advisor for Jazz at the Kennedy Center, will perform based on Kara Walker’s work “Katastwóf Karavan” installed in the Sculpture Garden.

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Afro-Atlantic Histories' (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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