New program first to interpret de Young Museums’ African art collection as a living and evolving aesthetic practice through lens of contemporary art
Appearance at Affective Affinities: 33rd Bienal de São Paulo, 2018. Courtesy of SMAC Gallery. © Lhola Amira.
Opening December 17, 2022, ‘Lhola Amira: Facing the Future’ launches the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s new African art program, foregrounding the permanent collection as a site of exploration for the evolving nature of African arts and their meanings today. Helmed by Natasha Becker, inaugural curator of African art, the program features contemporary artists whose work draws on and engages the artistic and cultural traditions of Africa. First to present, Lhola Amira (b. 1984, Gugulethu, South Africa) embodies South African Nguni spiritual practices in THEIR* life and work, emphasising the power of remembering ancestors.
“Natasha Becker has designed a program that is timely and relevant in its approach, interpreting the Fine Arts Museums’ collection of African art as a body of aesthetic practices that are very much alive in the work of contemporary artists from the African continent and throughout the diaspora,” remarked Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “In ‘Lhola Amira: Facing the Future‘, visitors will be able to trace the trajectory of ancestor veneration from the 19th- and 20th-century figures in our permanent collection galleries to the new artwork that Lhola Amira has created specifically for the space.”
The artist’s first solo exhibition in the United States, ‘Facing the Future’ brings together Amira’s new Philisa: Zinza Mphefumlo Wami – or portal for spiritual reflection and connection – and THEIR single-channel video projection exploring indigenous forms of healing within the African diaspora, IRMANDADE: The Shape of Water in Pindorama (2018–2020). Created in response to the permanent collection’s ancestor sculptures, Amira’s Philisa installation or “Constellation” Zinza Mphefumlo Wami invites viewers to “be at rest with spirit.” Designed to be accessible to all, this portal for remembrance and resurrection pairs beaded curtains with a ceremonial salt bowl for cleansing, golden pillars with candlelight and water pitchers for channeling, and song to help invoke ancestral energies. The many ways in which African artworks convey the sacredness of life is explored further in the permanent collection’s ancestor figures, objects for communication with the divine, and masquerades that animate and revere previous generations.
IRMANDADE follows Amira’s journey through Bahia, Brazil. A work of “Appearance” rather than “performance,” the film is the artist’s response to the woundedness of water, land, and generations of descendants of enslaved peoples throughout the diaspora. In THEIR “Appearances,” Amira engages with the site-specific geographic, political, and socioeconomic conditions of place. Their ceremonial foot washing of Afro-Brazilian women in IRMANDADE gestures toward healing through ancestral wisdom and is itself an act of profound recognition of diasporic connections. “To heal ourselves,” says the artist, “is to heal our ancestors, too.” Lhola Amira THEMSELF identifies as an ancestral presence co-existing in the body of curator Khanyisile Mbongwa.
“I invited Lhola Amira to be the first artist to participate in our contemporary African art program because of the urgency of THEIR call to reclaim indigenous wisdom and healing practices as a way to address the psychological, spiritual, and environmental wounds so prevalent in our world today,” notes Natasha Becker. “THEY are THEMSELF a plural being, an ancestral presence, and THEIR aesthetic intervention at the museum importantly acknowledges the wounding of Africans and Native Americans for the sake of greater love and compassion.”
The new African art program is the latest initiative by the Fine Arts Museums to present the work of living artists in dialogue with the permanent collections, as has been the practice of its Contemporary art program over the past 6 years. With a newly designed temporary exhibition gallery leading to the permanent collection, the African art program will continue to bring artists who are deeply engaged with African art, culture, and society to the Fine Arts Museums to amplify the vitality of the African art collection. Amira will make an “Appearance” to open Facing the Future and consecrate the exhibition as a sacred space.
Lhola Amira was born in 1984 in Gugulethu, South Africa, and currently lives and works in Cape Town, South Africa. Amira’s practice includes “Appearance,” photography, video, and sculpture presented under the term “Constellation.” The artist Lhola Amira is an ancestral body co-existing in the body of curator and academic Khanyisile Mbongwa, therefore using the capitalised pronouns THEY/THEM/THEIR in THEIR work and in conversation about THEIR plural existence. Notably, Khanyisile Mbongwa was announced as the curator for the 2023 Liverpool Biennale. Amira has been awarded a number of residencies, namely the AiRS (Artist in Residence Skövde Art Museum) in Sweden in 2017; the Jiwar Creation and Society residency in Barcelona in 2015; and at Vasl Artists’ Collective in Islamabad, Pakistan in 2010. Amira’s works address the wounds left by colonisation and create spaces for healing through connection to the earth, the ancestral, and the spiritual.
The African Art Collection at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco contains approximately 300 objects, most of which date from the 19th century through the mid-20th century, when tremendous political, economic, and religious change influenced art and culture in many societies through colonialism, imperialism, war, and globalism. Artworks range from an ancient Dogon wood figure from 11th-to-12th-century Mali to the work of renowned contemporary artist El Anatsui, a sculptor from Ghana who transforms everyday materials into striking installations. Outstanding examples of masks and figural sculptures from art-producing cultures in West and Central Africa are on view in the de Young’s African art gallery.
The Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas Department was founded in 1971, but the collection originated with works of art exhibited at the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition held in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, and steadily grew, enriched by purchases, donations, and gifts from Bay Area art collectors.
Established in 2016, the Department of Contemporary Art and Programming (CAP), led by Claudia Schmuckli, has distinguished itself through an innovative and dynamic program of commissions, exhibitions, and interventions in dialogue with the Fine Arts Museums’ historical sites, architecture, and collections. As the only department not delineated by either medium or geography, CAP exhibits and collects works in all media and across geographies that incite dialogues, embrace a multiplicity of perspectives, and shed new light on both the past and the present. Reflecting a commitment to fostering an inclusive, diverse, and forward-looking dialogue, CAP highlights pressing societal issues and concerns through its programs and acquisitions.
The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco oversee the de Young museum, located in Golden Gate Park, and the Legion of Honor, in Lincoln Park. It is the largest public arts institution in San Francisco, and one of the most visited arts institutions in the United States.
The de Young originated from the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition in Golden Gate Park and was established as the Memorial Museum in 1895. It was later renamed in honor of Michael H. de Young, who spearheaded its creation. The present copper-clad landmark building, designed by Herzog & de Meuron, opened in October 2005. Reflecting an active conversation among cultures, perspectives, and time periods, the collections on view include American painting, sculpture, and decorative arts from the 17th to the 21st centuries; arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas; costume and textile arts; and international modern and contemporary art.
The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco respectfully acknowledge the Ramaytush Ohlone, the original inhabitants of what is now the San Francisco Peninsula, and acknowledge that the Greater Bay Area is the ancestral territory of the Miwok, Yokuts, Patwin, and other Ohlone. Indigenous communities have lived in and moved through this place over hundreds of generations, and Indigenous peoples from many nations make their home in this region today. Please join us in recognising and honouring their ancestors, descendants, elders, and their communities.
* Lhola Amira uses the capitalised pronouns THEY/THEM/THEIR
The programme will be taking place from the 17th of December, 2022, until the 3rd of December, 2023, at the de Young Museum. For more information, please visit the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.