Stunning and as powerful as it is large, a stainless-steel work of art served as a welcome greeting for guests at “Afro-Atlantic Histories,” the highly anticipated exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
The piece, Hank Willis Thomas’s “A Place to Call Home (Africa America Reflection),” strikes quite a tone for the acclaimed exhibit that covers 400 years of the African Diaspora and examines the multiple histories and legacies of the transatlantic slave trade.
“The opening was a wonderful experience. It was such an honor to have so many artists there to celebrate with us and see everyone’s excitement about the exhibition,” said curator Kanitra Fletcher, who configured a similar but smaller touring show for Houston and the National Gallery.
“Our special events team outdid themselves and created such a joyful and celebratory feeling, with the design, food, dancing, and of course our very special guest – Vice President Kamala Harris. It was an honor to give her a tour of the exhibition and see how much it spoke to her. I could not have asked for a better debut for the exhibition,” Fletcher stated.
“This exhibit, of course, is a part of reminding us that we must always remember where we come from,” Harris stated.
“Let us always appreciate where we are and have faith about where we can go, knowing we can see what can be, unburdened by what has been,” she asserted.
Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation and a Trustee at the National Gallery of Art, proclaimed the exhibit “extraordinary.”
He said it’s an “unprecedented moment in the history of the National Gallery of Art and the D.C. community.”
“Never before has there been a more diverse, vibrant and range of people gathered,” Walker insisted.
He said individuals arrived from Lagos, Accra, London, Los Angeles, Rio, and numerous other places to see the exhibit.
Walker also noted that he learned important lessons by viewing the exhibit.
“I learned how the challenge of racism binds us across the hemisphere from Brazil to the U.S. and everywhere in between,” Walker recounted.
“I also learned that Paul Mellon owned some beautiful paintings with Black subjects.”
He urged everyone to “run, don’t walk” to visit the National Gallery.
“This show will help your spirit soar,” Williams concluded.
“Afro-Atlantic Histories” features over 130 works that Art News writer Alex Greenberger said speak to the horrors of slavery and the persistence of Black communities across the world in the years since the slave trade’s end in the U.S., Europe, and Brazil.
“It is an extremely ambitious show, with works from centuries past by Frans Post and John Phillip Simpson alongside works of the past 100 years by Glenn Ligon, Zanele Muholi, Barrington Watson, Frank Bowling, Paulo Nazareth, and more,” Greenberger wrote.
Among the many works is Aaron Douglas’s “Into Bondage,” the 1936 artwork that focuses on the inhumanity of slavery and the quest for freedom.
As noted in the work’s description, “Into Bondage” appears to signal some hope as a woman raises her hands towards the sky and a man gaze toward the North Star.
Zanele Muholi’s “Ntozahke II,” a 2016 self-portrait, also counts among the featured masterpieces.
Mimicking the Statue of Liberty, the work is a commentary on freedom.
“We had to reduce the number of works from over 400 to approximately 130, which was difficult but also enlightening because I learned a lot and discovered new works that are rarely seen in museums or discussed in art history courses,” Fletcher said.
She said she enjoyed reviewing works from the National Gallery’s collection and collaborating with curators in other departments to find ways to supplement the exhibition with works from the collection.
Fletcher, a renowned curator, added that the exhibition also provided an education for her.
“I learned about several new artists and artworks from the Caribbean and Europe that were new to me,” Fletcher noted.
“I hope our visitors find their works as enriching as I have and that the show leads to more scholarly attention and monographic exhibitions of many Black artists in the show who are revered in their own nations but rarely are seen in the U.S.”
The curator also noted that the exhibition isn’t the only reason to visit the National Gallery of Art.
“There will be many ways to experience the cultures of the African Diaspora at the National Gallery this spring, through related concerts, a film series, lectures, a day-long festival, and even special offerings in our Cascade Café,” she said.