The American Federation of Arts and Fisk University Galleries are organizing the first major traveling exhibition entitled “African Modernism in American“. The exhibition explores the complex relationships between patrons of the arts, African artists and American artists and cultural organizations. It features artworks that bear witness to the history of civil rights, decolonization and the Cold War.
In recent years, institutions such as New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Harmon Foundation and various colleges and universities, including the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), have been involved in collecting and exhibiting artworks by the most fashionable African artists of the 20th century. Contemporary artists such as Ibrahim El-Salahi, Ben Enwonwu, Skunder Boghossian and Gerard Sekoto are among those whose work was presented to show American audiences the unique and inventive style of contemporary African art, which was once seen as rooted in a “primitive past”.
The grandeur of the “African Modernism in American” exhibition is linked to the vast collection of donations made by Fisk University and the Harmon Foundation. This American organization actively supports the promotion and creation of links between African and African-American artists. The exhibition presents the work of fifty artists through more than seventy works of art, highlighting the links between emerging art in Africa in the 1950s and 1960s and the artistic and cultural policy of the United States.
In 1961, the Museum of Contemporary Art exhibited its first acquisition of contemporary African art, entitled “Men Taking Banana Beer to Bride by Night” by Sam Ntiro. In the same year, the Harmon Foundation organized the landmark exhibition “Art from Africa of Our Time“. The actions undertaken by these two institutions are aimed at drawing the public’s attention to the changes observed in African artistic modernism. This period corresponds to a mutation in relations between African nations and the United States, due to the social and political upheavals linked to decolonization and independence in Africa. This post-colonial situation prompted African artists to develop new visual languages, enabling the American public to discover their aesthetic and political concerns.
“African Modernism in American” will be divided into four sub-exhibitions. The first section, “Art from Africa of Our Time“, will highlight the places and people who have contributed to the development of modern African artists in the United States, as well as to the promotion of the Harmon Foundation exhibition. The second section, entitled “Modernism within Africa“, will highlight the discussions around postcolonial art and the networks of artists, literary journals, art education programs and galleries involved in the development of these new venues that serve as showcases for the “African Modernism in American” exhibition. The third section, “Modernism between Africa and America“, will highlight the significant links established between African and African-American artists in the United States. Finally, the fourth section, “The Politics of Selection“, will feature a new commission by Lagos-based sculptor Ndidi Dike. His aim is to create an immersive audiovisual installation that examines the pluralism of viewpoints, prejudices, allegiances and omissions uncovered during his research, collecting the stories on display at the exhibition as well as those held by the Harmon Foundation and Fisk University.
The presentation of these works from different African cultures in the United States brings contemporary African art up to date in the context of the modernism of American art. The “African Modernism in American” touring exhibition also strengthens ties between artists and transatlantic audiences.