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Afro-Atlantic Histories is a groundbreaking exhibition. Opening to the public on Sunday, April 10, the National Gallery of Art’s highly anticipated exhibit features more than 130 works that seek to tell the complex histories of the African Diaspora from the 17th century onward.
To mark the occasion, the gallery has hosted an array of preview events, including a Thursday night dinner celebration. Just hours after the Senate confirmed Judge Kentanji Brown Jackson as the first Black woman Supreme Court justice, Vice President Kamala Harris offered an emotional speech to those in attendance.
Before the VP took the stage, the National Gallery of Art’s Director Kaywin Feldman reminded the crowd that she was the gallery’s first woman director. Cheers erupted. “It gets better,” she laughed, introducing the first woman vice president.
Calling the exhibit “extraordinary,” Harris motioned to the room, arms wide: “This is world history, and it is American history. And, for many of us, it is also family history,” she said. “Yet this history is rarely taught in our schools or shown in our museums.”
Spanning multiple rooms, the well-designed exhibition curated by Kanitra Fletcher, includes paintings, sculpture, photographs, videos, and mixed media by artists from South and North America as well as Africa, Europe, and the Caribbean—i.e. the area known as the “Afro-Atlantic” or “Black Atlantic,” which was defined by the violent transatlantic slave trade from Africa to the western world. From designs and depictions of slave ships to the American flag sewn in red, black, and green fabric, Afro-Atlantic Histories attempts to tell the parts of history that capital H history often keeps quiet.
“With regard to European history, the 17th century is often referred to as the ‘Dutch Golden Age,’” Caroline Weaver writes on the National Gallery of Art’s blog. “This era is described as a time of great flourishing, exemplified in part by the luminous paintings of Rembrandt van Rijn and Johannes Vermeer. Yet do these stories acknowledge that this so-called golden age, which included artistic innovations and great prosperity for some, was also inextricably linked with massive trafficking and exploitation of African peoples?”
Featured artists include D.C.’s own (and beloved) Alma Thomas and David Driskell, as well as Theaster Gates (who also participated in the gallery’s Afro-Atlantic Histories: Contemporary Viewpoints panel on Friday morning), Kerry James Marshall, Eustáquio Neves, Nona Faustine, Jacob Lawrence, Marilyn Nance, and Samuel Fosso, among many others.
Harris, in her speech, acknowledged the pain and generations of trauma caused by the slave trade. The exhibit, she said, will “move” viewers as they journey through the rooms divided into different topics.
“We will also experience joy at seeing the expression,” Harris added. “It has been about survival, about self-determination, about a commitment to humanity, about a commitment to endurance and strength and excellence.”
Originally showcased as Histórias Afro-Atlânticas at Brazil’s Museu de Arte de São Paulo in 2018, Afro-Atlantic Histories is the first major exhibit curated by Fletcher, who joined the National Gallery of Art in early 2021 as the institution’s first Associate Curator of African American and Afro-Diasporic Art. Fletcher, who gave Harris a tour of the exhibition, also participated in Friday’s panel alongside artist and social innovator Gates and philanthropist Agnes Gund, founder of Art for Justice Fund. Darren Walker, an NGA trustee and president of the Ford Foundation, moderated the panel.
“We are basking in your glow,” Walker told Fletcher, opening the panel.
After joking that she’s “thankful I didn’t faint” while with Harris, Fletcher told Friday’s audience that she hopes the importance of this exhibit—and the space it inhabits—is made clear. Located in the gallery’s West Building, which houses works from the 11th through 19th centuries, the space is not known for featuring artists of color.
For so long, Fletcher said, Black people have been seen as “counter” to this history. “These works show how intertwined our histories are.”
Though it may feel too soon to talk about what’s next, Afro-Atlantic Histories runs through July 17, Fletcher is already thinking about new acquisitions. “There are so many other stories that need to be told,” she said. She’s already thinking about the artists who are long-overdue—and the up-and-comers—to be added to NGA’s collection.
The celebrations for Afro-Atlantic Histories are just getting started. On April 30, the museum will host a daylong festival of music, art, and foods from cultures of the African Diaspora. An ongoing film series in relation to the exhibit will run through mid-July, and concerts—including one by Okaidja Afroso Trio on April 24—are among the many upcoming events.
Afro-Atlantic Histories, co-organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Museu de Arte de Sāo Paulo in collaboration with the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., runs April 10 to July 17 at the National Gallery of Art’s West Building. nga.gov. Free.