A dynamic and vibrant traveling exhibition now on at the Phillips Collection showcases the work of 50 extraordinary African and African American artists during an era of incredible social and political change.
African Modernism in America, 1947-67 tackles big themes — independence, civil rights, cultural diplomacy, urban life and the natural world — and there’s plenty for history buffs and students of politics to dig into. The curators delve into covert CIA funding to cultural groups, decolonization across Africa and the civil rights movement in the United States, for instance.
But the art itself doesn’t feel academic. What’s on display here is exploding with color and light, full of remarkable imagery and storytelling. There’s several works by the artist Skunder Boghossian, born in Ethiopia in 1937, that are particularly stunning. The exhibition notes he developed a philosophy of “Afro-metaphysics” and was also informed by surrealism, and it’s fascinating to see the world through his eyes, all geometric shapes and cave birds, icons and the natural world.
It should be noted that the show’s time period, from 1947-67, isn’t arbitrarily chosen. In addition to documenting a tumultuous, electric political moment globally, the exhibition’s end date coincides with the year the Harmon Foundation gave a major gift of modern African art to Fisk University after ceasing operations. The twenty-year period charted in the show traverses the post-WWII and Cold War landscape, when there was new enthusiasm behind Pan-Africanism as a cultural and political movement and dozens of new states achieved autonomy and independence from colonialism.
The exhibition does a deep dive into how artists responded to and engaged with that era of seismic change, and the new opportunities they had for travel and cultural diplomacy that transformed their work.
“A lot of the artists in the exhibition are responding to that moment of change in their work,” co-curator Perrin Lathrop told The Washington Diplomat in an interview. “And so I think that that’s one way to think about the time period of the exhibition, that it’s both really thinking deeply about this historical context, but then also the ways that artists are using their work to react and take ownership over that time period. So decolonization and civil rights movements are bringing individuals from Africa and its diaspora together politically, but also, this is the jet age, which is a sort of undercurrent of the exhibition.”
In the most visually arresting piece in the exhibition, Boghossian’s “Blue Composition” from 1967 — a masterpiece of acrylic, gouache and air brush on panel in the artist’s frame that’s in a private collection — a cosmic explosion of light and line and metaphysics invites visitors to take their time with the image before them. It’s distinct and blurred, all at once, and the horizontal and vertical bands allude to the kitab, or healing scrolls, of Ethiopia, the exhibition notes. The blues that range from royal to electric to pale blue dominate the scene with splashes of green, yellow, orange and white to create an unmissable experience.
Along with the prismatic abstraction of Boghossian, the exhibition also explores more narrative art styles, like that of South African artist Peter Clarke. “That Evening the Sun Goes Down,” centers the sun, a bright yellow orb at the heart of the scene surrounded by splintered orange light. But then you take in the rest of the picture: the township, with two men chatting, goats roaming the scene, a woman walking home with her basket on her head, chickens just to her side and a green plant stretches into the sky.
The work of Pilipili Mulongoy dives even deeper into imagery attuned to the natural world: in two remarkable paintings on display, “Crocodile Eating Fish” and “Snake Amid Flowers,” danger mixes with beauty and realism confronts legend amid swirling decorative motifs.
Next to these images visitors will find Rekyaelimoo Njau’s “The Load and the Hoe,” a lithograph on paper that represents the strength of Kikuyu women who lived in villages unsettled by the Mau Mau uprising. The rapid movement of the black and white lines mirrors a storm encircling the two women as they work the land and carry their babies despite, and through, the turbulent scene.
There’s also a contemporary commission from Ndidi Dike, “The Politics of Selection” — which Lathrop noted “highlights the contribution of women artists to the history of modernism in Africa” — on display that stretches the show’s thematic approach outside the bounds of its time period to today.
“The show really is about increasing the visibility of the contributions of African artists in the mid-20th century,” Lathrop said. “The social and political context is crucial for the show, but I hope that upon visiting visitors will also be able to take a close look at how individual works of art are operating as works of art.”
African Modernism in America, 1947-67 is on at the Phillips Collection through Jan. 7, 2024.