Culture Talk: Curator Kanitra Fletcher on the Exhibition Afro-Atlantic Histories: It’s About ‘How the African Diaspora Comprises All These Voices and…

Posted By on July 18, 2022

A VISUAL REVELATION, Afro-Atlantic Histories presents a sweeping account of the African Diaspora. The exhibition explores the historical experiences and cultural formations of Black people of African descent, across four centuries dating from the 17th century to the present. More than 130 works of art by artists from Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, and the Americas speak to the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade and its geographic and human outcomes.

Afro-Atlantic Histories was originally co-organized by Adriano Pedrosa with Ayrson Herclito, Hlio Menezes, Lilia Moritz Schwarcz, and Toms Toledo, in 2018 in Brazil, where it was presented across two institutions, the Museu de Arte de So Paulo and the Instituto Tomie Ohtake. In the United States, the show will be on view in Washington, D.C., Texas, and California. The landmark touring exhibition is curated by Kanitra Fletcher, who joined the National Gallery of Art in a newly created role as associate curator of African American and Afro Diasporic art in February 2021.

Installation view of Afro-Atlantic Histories, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2022. Shown, mural-scale installation at right, ZANELE MUHOLI, Ntozakhe II (Parktown), 2016. | Courtesy National Gallery of Art

At the National Gallery in Washington, Fletcher co-curated the show with Molly Donovan, curator of contemporary art, 1975-present, and Steven Nelson, a professor and curator who serves of dean of the National Gallery of Arts Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts (CASVA). Afro-Atlantic Histories unfolds across several galleries arranged around six themes: Maps and Margins; Enslavements and Emancipations; Everyday Lives; Rites and Rhythms; Portraits; and Resistance and Activisms.

The presentation features several new acquisitions, including a photographic self portrait by South African artist Zanele Muholi titled Ntozakhe II, (Parktown) (2016); Current Forms: Yoruba Circle (1969), a painting by David Driskell (1931-2020); A Place to Call Home (Africa America Reflection) (2020), a stainless steel wall installation with a mirror finish by American artist Hank Willis Thomas; Njideka Akunyili Crosbys painting Eko Skyscraper (2019); and Figura de Poder (2020), a mixed-media sculpture by Puerto Rican artist Daniel Lind-Ramos. In addition, selections by Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Aaron Douglas, Barley L. Hendricks, Lois Mailou Jones, Jacob Lawrence, Glenn Ligon, Kerry James Marshall, and Mickalene Thomas, among others, are drawn from the National Gallerys existing holdings. Works spanning painting, sculpture, photography, drawings, and video, from many other public and private collections from throughout the diaspora are also on display.

Culture Type spoke with Fletcher about Afro-Atlantic Histories. The conversation explores how the exclusively Brazilian exhibition eventually came to the United States, the ways in which the works on view capture both the artistss expressions and the history of the African Diaspora, and Fletchers new role at the National Gallery of Art:

Kanitra Fletcher is organizing the U.S. presentation of Afro-Atlantic Histories. The exhibition has been presented at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and will also travel to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Dallas Museum of Art. Fletcher joined the National Gallery of Art as associate curator of African American and Afro Diasporic art in February 2021. | Courtesy National Gallery of Art

CULTURE TYPE: If you were talking to someone who didnt really know much about art or even the history of slavery across the Atlantic and its legacy, how would you describe this exhibition?

KANITRA FLETCHER: The first thing I would say is that its really dealing with the breadth and the complexity of the African Diaspora and really thinking about how integral Black people and Black culture have been to the development of the modern West. Its not just about slavery, but really what has been born from that terrible experience, whats developed from the transatlantic slave trade.

I think what they need to really learn from the exhibition is how art responds to those official and overlooked narratives. How earlier works by European artists have later been challenged and complicated by later works by Black artists who really complicate the stories and show us how many different voices and lives and experiences contribute to the history of the African Diaspora. It isnt just one grand narrative or one singular way of understanding it. Its really about how all these histories and people and groups are intertwined. How the African Diaspora comprises all these voices and lives and experiences.

You mentioned the representations made by European artists. I didnt have a chance to see the show in Brazil, but I heard about it and read about it, and I had an assumption that all the art was by Black artists of African descent. But thats not the case. Its interesting to see the works of European artists and their interpretations. Can you give an example, within the exhibition, where you have a European artists work that is countered in some way by one of the Black artists or some of the Black artists in the exhibition?

The first one that comes to mind, its not exactly a European artist, but its an image of The Scourged Back (circa 1863). It was taken by a white photographer. The enslaved man Gordon had fled from slavery and landed in, I believe, Louisiana with scars on his back from being whipped. And so they took a picture of him, of his back, and it circulated for abolitionist purposes and it became famous and it was only titled the Scorched Back. His personhood was erased, but it was used for admirable purposes. But nonetheless, its still dehumanizing. He became an icon, not an individual.

With that important work, Arthur Jafa responds to it by creating a three-dimensional work, blowing him up, large scale and having those wounds be raised. Its this really visceral wall sculpture that really impresses upon you the individuality of this person and also the trauma that he experienced. What I think is important is that he uses his name in the title (Ex-Slave Gordon). He asserts his actual personhood. I think that thats an important connection. Its not necessarily countering the work, but its complicating it or expanding upon it and making us look at it from a different perspective, a more humanistic perspective.

I think what they need to really learn from the exhibition is how art responds to those official and overlooked narratives. Its really about how all these histories and people and groups are intertwined. How the African Diaspora comprises all these voices and lives and experiences. Kanitra Fletcher

Installation view of Afro-Atlantic Histories, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2022. Shown, in foreground, The Freedman (1862-63) bronze sculpture by JOHN QUINCY ADAMS WARD, in background, from left, NATHANIEL JOCELYN, Portrait of Cinqu (1839-40) and SAMUEL RAVEN, Celebrating the Emancipation of Slaves in British Dominions, 1834 (circa 1834).. | Courtesy National Gallery of Art

Installation view of Afro-Atlantic Histories, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2022. Shown, far right, ARTHUR JAFA, Ex-slave Gordon, 2017, with Into Bondage (1936) by AARON DOUGLAS, at center. | Courtesy National Gallery of Art

I want to talk about your role in the exhibition. My understanding is that when MASP co-organized the show in Brazil, an MFA Houston curator saw it. And then from there, the idea of bringing it to the United States came about, is that right?

I think an MFA (Houston) curator saw the show and/or received the catalog. I dont know which and then it got to me through the director. Yeah. The directors office sent it to me and so I looked at it. And then I went back to the directors office and said, Yes, I would like to do this show and think about how it could come to America.

At that point, when you made the decision that MFA Houston should show the exhibition, had you seen it in person in Brazil yet?

No. No. It was purely based on the catalog and in my knowledge of some of the works as well. Thinking about the organization of it was really exciting. I hadnt actually seen the works in person yet.

Did you ever see the show in Brazil, eventually?

I did not because it had already closed.

The show was in 2018 in Brazil, and there was a gap in the schedule, in terms of it not coming to the United States right away. What was that due to?

The show was never intended to travel to the United States. That was what the director and I in Houston initiated. We were like, Lets bring this to the States. It was never in the plans when the show originally opened in Brazil.

What was the timing of that? When did you first see the catalog and tell your director, We should do this show. What year was that?

Good Lord. Thats a good question. Its been so long. I think it was late 2019. That feels right, because I know when I finally had the first meeting with MASP, with Adriano (Pedrosa), the artistic director there, that was in Miami at Art Basel. It must have been December 2019. Thats the only date that makes sense. Because the next year, the following year, we wouldve been in quarantine.

AARON DOUGLAS, Into Bondage, 1936 (oil on canvas). | National Gallery of Art, Corcoran Collection (museum purchase and partial gift from Thurlow Evans Tibbs, Jr., The Evans-Tibbs Collection). 2021 Heirs of Aaron Douglas / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Right Society (ARS), NY

DANIEL LIND-RAMOS, Figura de Poder, 20162020 (mirrors, concrete blocks, cement bag, sledgehammer, construction stones bag, paint bucket, wood panels, palm tree trunk, burlap, leather, ropes, sequin, awning, plastic ropes, fabric, trumpet, pins, duct tape, maracas, sneaker, tambourine, working gloves, boxing gloves, acrylic). | National Gallery of Art, Washington New Century Fund 2022.6.1 Daniel Lind-Ramos

Lets talk about your curatorial career during that period. You were at MFA Houston and then joined National Gallery of Art. Was the National Gallery originally involved in Afro-Atlantic Histories? Or did that come about because you took a position there?

I was at Houston working on this show. We were going to partner with a different museum, but that didnt work out. And so it was kind of undetermined whether or not wed be able to go forward. Then we got this incredible grant from the Ford Foundation and we were able to do the show, but of course still wanted to find a partner to make it an actual tour. That was when we approached the National Gallery and Kaywin Feldman, our director, thankfully, got on board.

I was still in Houston and it wasnt even a twinkle in my eye, the National Gallery. I just thought Im going to be working on this show in Houston and then itll go off to the curatorial colleagues at the National Gallery and thats Steven Nelson and Molly Donovan. They were working on the show and then through the course of working on the show, they started looking for an associate curator for the museum. A couple people sent the posting to me and said you should consider it. I did, and then I got the position.

Of course, Steven and Molly had been already working on this show and so they had made a few choices, different from what was being shown in Houston. They were all great choices. The show was a little different because they were using works from the National Gallerys collection. I wasnt as familiar with the National Gallery collection at that time. It was really an exciting, welcome surprise to see what they had selected. We continued still to refine it and to make a few changes together.

HEITOR DOS PRAZERES, Musicians, circa 1950s (oil on canvas). | Museu de Arte de So Paulo Assis Chateaubriand MASP Gift of Rafael Moraes in the context of the exhibitions Histories of Dance, 2020

PAULO NZARETH, Untitled from the series For Sale, 2011 (photo print on cotton paper). | Collection Galeria Mendes Wood DM, So Paulo, Brazil

Im curious about the transition of the show from Brazil to the United States. From a curatorial standpoint, given the theme of the show, did you think about it with a different lens for the U.S. audience?

I did. Thats right. The show in Brazil, I would say it was very Brazil centric. They were thinking about their audiences, understandably. Some of the changes I made were to think about, well, at that time I was in Houston. So thinking about the Houston community, where there is a sizeable Brazilian population, but I was thinking about the Black and Latinx communities that would be going to see the show. I did expand in some ways on the U.S. selections or the U.S.-based artist selections a bit. I kept some of the more familiar names in the show, but I did want to keep the younger Brazilian artists who are less known in the states because you know, this is an exciting opportunity for them to be seen in the States.

Theyre also thinking in terms of global ideas about Blackness and I thought that it was important to have them represented, these later generations, how theyre connecting to these historical themes. What else? There were two sections that I decided to take out. One was called Roots and Trances and that was really thinking of connections between Bahia and Haiti and Jamaica, I believe. While that was fascinating, I didnt know that it would particularly resonate, as well, for U.S.-based audiences. Also, it was only dealing with three areas of the Diaspora and not the global view of the African diaspora the way that the rest of the sections were operating.

I also took out the Afro-Atlantic Modernism section which was another fantastic section, but it was smaller. It was dealing with art historical movements rather than narratives of people and stories about people. Also, it was really about a 30-year span I think it was from the 1940s to 1970s not the 400-year span that the other sections have, from the 17th century to today. But I did move a few works from those sections into other sections.

BARRINGTON WATSON, Conversation, 1981 (oil on canvas). | National Gallery of Jamaica, gift of Workers Savings & Loan Bank. Estate of Barrington Watson

Installation view of Afro-Atlantic Histories, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2022. Shown, in foreground ELIZABETH CATLETT (Reclining Female Nude, 1955) from left, Works by DINDGA MCCANNON (Empress Akweke, 1975); MICKALENE THOMAS (Melody: Back, 2011); and WILLIAM H. JOHNSON (Little Girl in Green, circa 1941). | Courtesy National Gallery of Art

How difficult was it when you worked on transitioning the exhibition from Brazil to the United States to reduce it from the 450 works down to 130? Was it 130 in Houston too, as it is at the National Gallery of Art?

It was approximately, I would say no more than 150 (in Houston). It was very difficult. I mean, look, if I had it my way, we wouldve kept every one of them, 400 and something works in the show. Theyre all incredible choices and strong pieces, but the reality of it is that we didnt have the space for it. They had a tighter hang in Brazil, also. When you see the installation images, you can see that they put a lot into one space. It depends on your taste. Some people like that tight hang. Some dont.

I wanted to give the spaces a little more breathing room. It was very difficult. I really did think hard and long about what works. Of course, I looked at the works that I personally love and wanted to keep in the show. But, I did want to keep the integrity of the original show to make sure that there is a representation of many different nations. I think we were successful in that regard.

You have a masters degree in Latin American studies with an emphasis on art history and Brazilian studies. Was that part of the connection for you? Talk about that background and how your academic experience informed your work on this exhibition.

Oh yeah. I mean, there was absolutely selfish interest here. One, I have an interest in Brazilian art and Black Brazilian culture. So I thought it was important to bring this show to the States. One of the reasons that I was excited about it was also because it created this opportunity to disrupt the centering of Black Americans in histories and to present a global understanding of Blackness, that engages the struggles of Black resilience. Because the racial politics of their histories and their experiences have been clouded by this myth of the racial democracy that suggests that Black and white Brazilians live in harmony and that no racism exists in Brazil.

A lot of people dont know that that is not the case. Even many Black Americans believe this myth that theres no racism in Brazil. A lot of people are not aware of the numerous parallels of social and political struggles related to slavery and discrimination between the two countries. Well, really amongst all the countries represented in the show. That was one of my goals. In some small way to get that point across.

People also dont understand that only 6 percent of enslaved Africans arrived in the United States. Most enslaved Africans ended up in South America and the Caribbean. Its really just a strange development that so many people believe that Americans, Black Americans are the center of Blackness, of the African Diaspora. Its just really not the case. I think the breadth of this show, the complexity of it, helps get that point across to correct the traditional history that weve been taught.

People also dont understand that only 6 percent of enslaved Africans arrived in the United States. Most enslaved Africans ended up in South America and the Caribbean. So many people believe that Americans, Black Americans are the center of Blackness, of the African Diaspora. Its just really not the case. Kanitra Fletcher

FIRELEI BEZ, Given the ground (the fact that it amazes me does not mean that I relinquish it), 2017 (acrylic on canvas). | Collection of Kelly Williams and Andrew Forsyth, Firelei Bez. Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

DJANIRA DA MOTTA E SILVA, Feira da Bahia [Bahia Market], 1979 (oil on canvas). | Private Collection Salvador/BA

Presenting that history, correcting those assumptions is critical and a really important aspect of the exhibition. Some of that work is done with an infographic in the first gallery. Its a map that shows different sized spots representing where slaves landed, with a really large spot in Brazil. Was that map included in the Brazil version of the exhibition?

No, I dont believe so. That was something we developed.

Its such as an important visual that also emphasizes that this exhibition presents an artistic legacy for Black, global expression, but it also is very much, as you were talking about, exposing some of the history and reality of whats gone on with Black people going back to the 17th century. It really does help inform an audience that may not be aware of some of the specifics of that history, beyond America.

Oh, absolutely. I want people to learn and to be educated to some degree. But also at the same time, I do want them to enjoy the artwork. Its an interesting balance, but I think that its important to have these facts available, especially right now with all this talk about politicians, talk about history and whats being taught. There are facts (laughs). There are things that actually happened. Any opportunity that we can get to educate them on those facts, I welcome. Happy to do it. But just finding a way to balance the beauty of the work and the complexity and the differences, the differences between the voices, but then also have these real facts about the realities of these histories is important.

The catalog published to accompany the U.S. version of Afro-Atlantic Histories is fully illustrated, including images of artworks on display in the Brazil exhibition and an essay by Kanitra Fletcher titled Occupy: Self Portraiture. | Published by DelMonico Books/Museu de Arte de So Paulo (Dec. 7, 2021), 385 pages

Your essay in the exhibition catalog is about self-portraiture. Why did you choose to write on that topic and how does self-portraiture speak to or represent the histories that are presented in this show?

I had been doing research during my doctoral program and I thought I was going to write about self-portraiture for my dissertation. I had been doing research about it prior to this exhibition. And then when I looked at the works that were in the exhibition, I saw how many of the works fit into these categories, these major categories of self-portraiture, like masquerade, about the erasure of the self, and all those different aspects of self portraiture. Thats really why I decided to write on it. Self portraiture is one of those genres thats really, theres a traditional way of understanding it, but a lot of people dont understand how artists have really reinvented and reimagined ways of seeing the self.

I thought that would be an important way of really explaining to people how these stories and these histories are not far removed from the lives of the artists themselves. By having self portraiture in this show were saying artists arent up in their ivory towers, distanced from the realities and off in their imagination. No, theyre really living these histories. These histories resonate with them every day. And by having themselves in the exhibition, theyre showing that connection, how deep and how personal it actually is.

SAMUEL FOSSO, SelfPortrait (as Liberated American Woman of the 70s), 1997, printed 2003 (chromogenic print). | The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum purchase funded by Nina and Michael Zilkha. 1997 Samuel Fosso, courtesy JM. Patras / Paris

ZANELE MUHOLI, Ntozakhe II, (Parktown), 2016 (photographic wall mural from digital file). | National Gallery of Art, Washington Alfred H. Moses and Fern M. Schad Fund 2021.88.1 Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of the artist, Yancey Richardson, New York, and Stevenson Cape Town / Johannesburg

In the gallery where the portraits are on display, there is a huge mural-size image from (South African photographer) Zanele Muholi. Its monumental. Covering an entire wall, its the central image in the gallery. Is this the first time it has been displayed at that size?

Thats my understanding, yes. This was acquired by our photography department. The curator there said she learned that from the gallery, that thats the largest its ever been displayed.

Ive seen that self-portrait, that image by Muholi before, just never on that large of a scale. Its in the National Gallerys collection. How does that work? Its digital image and it can be shown or produced at any size and for effect in this exhibition you wanted to show it large?

Yeah, you can print it at any scale, as I understand it. I saw that wall and I said, why dont we just cover that wall with her? You know, we can do anything. We can have any size we want. And shes, you know, like a Statue of Liberty, which is a grand scale, right? So why shouldnt she be just as grand scale? (Editors note: Muholi uses they/them pronouns).

National Gallery of Art (April 7, 2022): Guided by curator Kanitra Fletcher (far right), Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband, Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, preview Afro-Atlantic Histories exhibition, including works by Glenn Ligon (Untitled (I Am a Man), 1988, left) and Alma Thomas (March on Washington, 1964, in background). Vice President Harris spoke at the exhibitions opening gala. | Official White House Photo. Photo by Lawrence Jackson

I want to learn more about your position at the National Gallery of Art, associate curator of African American and Afro Diasporic art. What does the title mean and what is the focus of the position?

Well, one of the main thingsAfro Atlantic Histories is an example of itis to bring exhibitions here that feature and highlight the work of the African Diaspora and African American artists. But I think one of the main goals and intentions is for me, in collaboration with my colleagues, to expand the collection, to broaden and deepen its representation of Black artists and to really have our collection reflect the nation.

In other countries, the National Gallery is where you find those nations treasures. It is meant to reflect the history and the forms of expression of a nation. So thats what Ive been tasked to do and its been exciting. Weve brought in a few new acquisitions. Betye Saar, shes finally represented by a sculpture, the medium that shes known for, as well as Melvin Edwards, another artist who is known for sculpture. He was only represented by a print up to this point. Now hes represented by four of his Lynch fragments, his famous series. David Driskell is also now in the collection.

Is that the first time that David Driskell has been represented in the collection?

No, there were works on paper. There are prints. This is the first painting. Faith Ringgold (The American People Series #18: The Flag is Bleeding, 1967). That was a joint effort, by the way, not just me. James Meyer, one of the other curators (curator of art, 19451974) and I worked on that, which is very exciting. Ive really been tasked with working on the collection, thinking about who to add and whats important for me right now, Im thinking about those artists for which it is long overdue for them to be in the collection, who have been working for decades. You know, five, six decades like Ringgold and Edwards. These are people who should have been in the collection a long time ago. (Editors Note: A different work by Faith Ringgold is featured in Afro-Atlantic Histories, a 1983 painted quilt Whos Afraid of Aunt Jemima?, from the collection of Glenstone Museum in Potomac, Md.)

Im so thrilled that they are now and that our director is supporting these acquisitions, because another important thing to think about is that this collection is permanent, literally permanent. We do not deacession here. These are works that are meant to be preserved and cared for, for eternity. And so I really think thats important to have them in the collection, to make sure that they are forever representative of our nations art. And with that, acquiring works, youre also thinking about how do we display them? The traditional histories, the Picasso to Rothko story, that is one story, thats one history of art. There are so many more, so many more artists and movements and collectives. I think its going to be really exciting to start to have those stories alongside those traditional stories in the galleries.

KERRY JAMES MARSHALL, Voyager, 1992 (acrylic and collage on canvas). | National Gallery of Art, Corcoran Collection (Gift of the Womens Committee of the Corcoran Gallery of Art). Kerry James Marshall

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Culture Talk: Curator Kanitra Fletcher on the Exhibition Afro-Atlantic Histories: It's About 'How the African Diaspora Comprises All These Voices and...

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