African Modernism in America

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 organizations amid the interlocking histories of civil rights, decolonization,  and the Cold War. The show reveals the transcontinental networks that challenged academic assumptions about African art in the United States and thereby encouraged American engagement with African artists as contemporaries. The exhibition will be on view from October 7, 2023–January 7, 2024.  

“The Phillips Collection is pleased to host this important exhibition, which provides a contextualized look  into meaningful exchanges among artists who were united by shared aesthetic and political concerns,”  Vradenburg Director and CEO Jonathan P. Binstock said. “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.” 

African Modernism exhibition

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 organization devoted to the cross-continental support and promotion of African and African American artists.

In 1961, the Harmon Foundation organized 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 Sam Joseph 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,” Perrin M. Lathrop, Assistant Curator of  African art at the Princeton University Art Museum and co-curator of the exhibition, who was previously the Postdoctoral Fellow in Modern and Contemporary Art History at the University of Maryland and The Phillips Collection (2021–22), said. “Owing to the leading role of the Harmon Foundation, , and other  cultural organizations 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.” 

African Modernism in America, 1947–67 is organized 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.”

David C. Driskell, “Yoruba Forms #5,” 1969. Oil on canvas
David C. Driskell, “Yoruba Forms #5,” 1969. Oil on canvas

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 paneled 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 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,” Camille Brown, Assistant Curator at The Phillips Collection and lead curator for the presentation in Washington, said. 

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