Featuring more than 70 artworks by 50 artists, the exhibition explores cross-cultural artistic networks and exchanges between Africa and the US during the postwar period.
Peter Clarke (1929–2014, South Africa), That Evening Sun Goes Down, 1960. Gouache on paper, 22 x 17 7/8 in. Fisk University Galleries, Fisk University, Nashville, TN. Gift of the Harmon Foundation. Funding for the conservation of this artwork was generously provided through a grant from the Bank of America Conservation Project. Courtesy of American Federation of Arts. © 2022 Peter Edward Clarke / DALRO, Johannesburg / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, NY.
The Phillips Collection presents ‘African Modernism in America, 1947-67’, the first major traveling exhibition to examine the connections between modern African artists and American patrons, artists, and cultural organisations amid the interlocking histories of civil rights, decolonisation, and the Cold War. The show reveals the transcontinental networks that challenged academic assumptions about African art in the United States and there by encouraged American engagement with African artists as contemporaries.
“The Phillips Collection is pleased to host this important exhibition, which provides a contextualised look into meaningful exchanges among artists who were united by shared aesthetic and political concerns,”says Vradenburg Director and CEO Jonathan P. Binstock.“Its presentation in Washington, DC has added significance given the pivotal role of Howard University, and other HBCUs, in providing early institutional support to African artists in the US. Ultimately, it is an important opportunity to learn about the contributions of a variety of African and African American artists to the history and lexicon of modernism, from those who have long been celebrated by the Phillips to those deserving greater recognition.”
Ranging from paintings and sculptures to works on paper, the exhibited artworks exemplify the experimentation and diverse artistic practices that emerged in Africa from the 1940s through the 1960s. The exhibition draws primarily from Fisk University’s remarkable collection of gifts from the Harmon Foundation, an American organisation devoted to the cross-continental support and promotion ofAfrican and African American artists. In 1961, the Harmon Foundation organised its landmark exhibition ‘Art from Africa of Our Time’. That same year, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, exhibited its first acquisition of contemporary African art, Men Taking Banana Beer to Bride by Night (1956) by SamJoseph Ntiro (Tanzania), which is also featured in ‘African Modernism in America, 1947-67’. Such early exchanges introduced American audiences to modern African artists and defied preconceived Western narratives that diminished African art.
“The simultaneity of the Harmon Foundation show and the MoMA purchase was crucially important, drawing attention to African artists’ modernity in the US,” says Perrin M. Lathrop, Assistant Curator of African art at the Princeton University Art Museum and co-curator of the exhibition, who was previously the Post doctoral Fellow in Modern and Contemporary Art History at the University of Maryland and The Phillips Collection (2021–22). “Owing to the leading role of the Harmon Foundation, HBCUs, and other cultural organisations in supporting these artists in
the US, the postwar period is one of the first times there is a concentrated opportunity for them to share the same physical space and collaborate together and alongside Black American artists.”
“The exhibition considers the historical and contemporary socio-political contexts during a transformative moment that shaped the collecting and exhibiting of postcolonial African art in the United States,” says Camille Brown, Assistant Curator at The Phillips Collection and lead curator for the presentation in Washington.
‘African Modernism in America, 1947-67’ is organised into four sections beginning with “Art from Africa of Our Time,” which foregrounds the places and people who supported the display and promotion of modern African artists in the US. Showcasing works by artists who were included in the seminal 1961 Harmon Foundation exhibition, this restaging considers the multitude of institutions where modern art from Africa was exhibited, such as the Harmon Foundation, the Museum of Modern Art, and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
The second section of the exhibition, “Modernism Within Africa,” highlights the continent-wide networks of artists, galleries, literary journals, and art education programs instrumental in the development of new, forward-thinking spaces for the display and discussion of postcolonial modern art. These collaborative workshops were influential in fostering creativity among African diasporic networks, which leads into the third section,“Modernism Between Africa and America.”The establishment of meaningful connections between African and African American artists resulted in transcontinental travel and art that embraced these cultural exchanges. Artist and art historian David C. Driskell (United States), Professor of Art and Chairman of the Department of Art at Fisk University from 1966 to 1977, made numerous trips to Africa and was inspired to establish a residency for international artists at Fisk University, which played an influential role.
Concluding with “The Politics of Selection,”the exhibition features a new commission of the same name by Nigeria-based artist Ndidi Dike. Incorporating archival research from the Harmon Foundation Records in Washington, DC, and Fisk University, Dike constructed an immersive mixed media installation that examines the multiplicity of viewpoints, biases, prejudices, allegiances, and omissions found in the archives. Dike’s panelled photo collage includes archival photography and documents to revise a complex history, investigating the presence and absence of women in the story of African modernity and the inequities inherent to white patronage.
The exhibition will be on view from the 7th of October, 2023, until the 7th of January, 2024. For more information and the full artist list, please visit The Phillips Collection.