Fisk University Galleries in Nashville, TN is organizing African Modernism in America, 1947-1967 to open in the fall of 2022. The show takes its ambition from Art from Africa of Our Time, an exhibition of modern African art organized by the New York-based Harmon Foundation in 1961.
Earlier that year, the Museum of Modern Art exhibited a painting by Tanzanian artist Sam Ntiro in their Recent Acquisitions installation, the first contemporary African artwork acquired by MoMA. This same year saw the Freedom Riders’ protests of segregation in the American South and the failure of JFK’s Cold War invasion of the Bay of Pigs in Cuba. It also witnessed the CIA’s assassination of Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba and eminent Pan-Africanist W.E.B. DuBois’ emigration from the United States to Ghana. The artists featured in the Harmon Foundation’s 1961 exhibition produced paintings and sculptures that responded to these interlocking histories of civil rights, decolonization and the Cold War.
Fisk’s exhibition will foreground the Harmon Foundation’s efforts in the mid-20th century to forge meaningful links between pan-African audiences and issues by making space for modern African art within the American creative sphere. Harmon’s insistence on the contemporaneity of African and African American artists radically changed the course of African and American modernism. The two women at its helm introduced American institutions to contemporary African artists at a time when they were largely unknown in this country, establishing invaluable connections between African and African American artists like Ibrahim El-Salahi, Ben Enwonwu, Jacob Lawrence and Aaron Douglas and institutions such as Fisk University. The show will feature about sixty works collected and promoted by Harmon from artists representing countries across the African continent and its diaspora to demonstrate how the artists articulated their modernity amidst a shared struggle for global black liberation.
In addition to works by the artists named above, African Modernism in America will include a new installation by Lagos, Nigeria-based artist Ndidi Dike that will examine the politics of selection in the writing of modern African art histories. In Fall 2019, Dike will travel to the United States to conduct archival research for her installation.
African Modernism in America is a collaborative project between Jamaal Sheats, MFA (Director, Fisk University Galleries), Nikoo Paydar, PhD (Assistant Curator, Fisk University Galleries) and Fisk University Galleries Curatorial Fellow and modern African art specialist Perrin Lathrop (PhD Candidate, Princeton University). Preliminary support from the Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts contributes to curatorial research and the show’s accompanying scholarly publication. The exhibition, drawn primarily from Fisk University’s art collection, will secure Fisk’s place as a center for research on African modernism and engage students in all stages of its planning. This show honors the 60th anniversary of independence across Africa and major milestones of the Civil Rights Movement in America and examines the implications of the Cold War for both.