A new reinstallation of the third floor of the Art of the Americas Wing at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), presents modern art from North and South America beyond the standard boundaries of geography, time and artistic movements. Opening May 26, 2022, Stories Artists Tell: Art of the Americas, the 20th Century takes the form of an anthology, with each room offering a short story on a different theme—from the perspectives of Native artists in the Southwest to the vibrant connections between art, design and jazz at midcentury. The works are primarily drawn from the MFA’s collection, with well-known icons appearing alongside new acquisitions and other objects on view for the first time.
Stories Artists Tell comprises six galleries that also provide context for a rotating central space, which will feature a series of special exhibitions in the coming years. The first, Touching Roots: Black Ancestral Legacies in the Americas, (May 2022–May 2023) brings together work by Black artists in the Americas who turned their gaze to Africa to find grounding, strength and guidance, and gained insight into their identities, aesthetics and artistic practices.
Outside scholars and collaborators were essential in planning the new installations. Touching Roots: Black Ancestral Legacies was co-organized with curator and writer Chenoa Baker; Kyrah Malika Daniels, Assistant Professor of Art History and African & African Diaspora Studies at Boston College; artist Stephen Hamilton; and Napoleon Jones-Henderson, artist and Executive Director of the Research Institute of African and African Diaspora Arts, Inc. and BENNU ARTS, LLC in Roxbury.
The Art and Jazz gallery was developed in collaboration with George W. Russell, Jr., Chair of Harmony and Jazz Composition at Berklee College of Music, and Christiana Larracuente, the MFA’s Decorative Arts Trust IDEAL Intern.
A Little Bit of the Southwest was developed in collaboration with Tess Lukey (Aquinnah Wampanoag), Shayai Lucero (Acoma Pueblo and Laguna Pueblo), Jennifer Himmelreich (Diné), Debra Yepa-Pappan (Jemez Pueblo and Korean), Elysia Poon, Cody Hartley and Wendy Evans-Joseph.
To acknowledge the cultural heritage of many visitors, as well as some of the artists with work on view, introductory texts throughout the galleries are presented in both Spanish and English.
Touching Roots: Black Ancestral Legacies in the Americas
Africa is at once a point of origin and the source of multiple associations—real and imagined—for many Black artists working in the Americas. In the 20th century, some artists self-consciously responded to writer and philosopher Alain LeRoy Locke’s call to engage with “those ancestral arts,” while others had been practicing African artistic traditions passed down through generations. Touching Roots: Black Ancestral Legacies in the Americas traces narratives of Blackness across the Atlantic world by bringing together work by artists who absorbed and reinterpreted African artistic practices, sacred customs and cultural expressions.
The exhibition features works from the MFA’s collection by Loïs Mailou Jones, James Richmond Barthé, Wifredo Lam, Kofi Bailey and Allan Rohan Crite in addition to loans by New England-based artists Napoleon Jones-Henderson, Ifé Franklin, Bryan Mcfarlane, Karen Hampton and Stephen Hamilton.
Art and Jazz
This gallery explores the intersections of art and jazz between the 1920s and ’50s to highlight the essential influence of Black culture on American life. Jazz grew from a distinctively African American sensibility, originating in New Orleans in the 19th century, when Black musicians combined African-style drumbeats with European harmonic structure, church hymns, field chants and Caribbean rhythms. This new, energetic sound, and its associated dance crazes, quickly spread throughout the country, including Boston.
Here, photographs portray musicians and document performances; paintings by Norman Lewis, Beauford Delany, Stuart Davis and Arthur Dove attempt to translate music into visual form; designs by Art Smith and Viktor Schreckengost evoke jazz rhythms or movement; and fashion styles from the Jazz Age show how the music was codified into a culture. All demonstrate that, by the 1920s, jazz was not just simply the latest trend in popular music—it had become synonymous with American modernity.
A forthcoming audio guide, available for free on the MFA Mobile app, will feature commentary and musical responses from local musicians and scholars.
A Little Bit of the Southwest
The American Southwest is vast and diverse. With the expansion of the railroad in the late 19th century and growth of tour companies in the early 20th century, many visitors encountered and were enamored by the distinctive cultures of Southwest Native peoples. By the 20th century, non-Native artists visited and moved to the region, contributing to and benefitting from its romanticized reputation. Instead of representing their ideas, this gallery showcases the work of Southwest Native artists, dating from the 19th century to today.
Imaginative drawings, watercolors and oil paintings by Awa Tsireh (San Ildefonso Pueblo) and Fritz Scholder (Luiseño) illustrate the Southwest as a center of learning and creativity for Native artists in the 20th century, tied to the creation of Native-centered art institutions. Interwoven with these works, glistening blackware by Maria Montoya Martinez (San Ildefonso Pueblo), dazzling wool weavings and silver and stone jewelry highlight time immemorial and ongoing traditions.
War and Spirituality at Mid-Century
This gallery features an array of artistic responses to World War II ranging freely across categories of style, mood, and nationality. All the works were born in the shadow of war, though they don’t necessarily portray it. Some painters and sculptors used figuration to communicate ideas about the struggle of the body and the transcendence of the spirit. Others turned to abstraction, trading familiar forms for pure energy, simultaneously destructive and revitalizing.
Anchored by Karl Knaths’s mural study Day of Atonement of 1939, a newly conserved diptych representing heaven and hell, these works are linked by ideas of change and renewal, from Hyman Bloom’s metamorphosis of the flesh to Jackson Pollock’s revisioning of painting, from Walker Hancock’s transfiguration of a fallen soldier to Norman Lewis’s glowing conversion of matter.
Throughout the 20th century, painters and photographers developed a language of abstraction, with simplified shapes and bold colors, by drawing inspiration from the elements and forces of nature. Artists like Georgia O’Keeffe looked away from rapid industrialization and sought a return to the rhythms of the natural world. Different Indigenous communities have incorporated abstracted depictions of plants, water, seasons, and animals into their art since time immemorial, and in more recent decades, artists including Norval Morrisseau (Anishinaabe) have translated their ancestral knowledge of ecology into painting, sculpture, and printmaking.
This gallery features work by Native and non-Native artists who refused to separate abstraction and representation. All shared interests in the connections between humans and the environment, and used nature as a starting point for awakening new forms of art.
Folk Meets Modernism
In their quest to reinvent their artwork, many modernists turned to so-called “folk” or “vernacular” forms, which they felt were free of the strictures of the academic tradition. They admired the plain forms of rural architecture and praised the bold colors, geometric shapes, and simplified lines in the work of self-taught painters and artisans. Some characterized vernacular art as an essential expression of its given region and used it to promote nationalist agendas, while others felt such works communicated a universal, human drive for creativity.
This gallery juxtaposes old with new, trained with untrained, and functional with decorative—all in an attempt to confront how we categorize art. Direct carving, collage and assemblage, silhouettes, and more by modernists who adopted folk methods and techniques stand alongside curbstones turned into human figures, painting that defies conventions of perspective and modeling, and extensive patterned surfaces created by makers active outside traditional centers of art.
Realidades: Latin American Figurative Art
Across diverse countries, cultures, landscapes, and languages, modern Latin American artists have experimented with how and why to represent people in their work. In connection with muralist and printmaking movements following the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920), many artists called for social change by picturing communities that had long remained invisible in fine art. Others, some of whom rejected the idea that art must serve politics, imagined entirely new types of bodies, human and supernatural, moving through dreamlike spaces. In a range of styles and media, the works in this gallery offer different visions of the realities of human experience—from Remedios Varo’s imaginative portrayal of a fantastic world in Tailleur pour dames (1957), a recent acquisition, to Portrait of Mr. Couchez (1978), Claudio Bravo’s photorealistic portrait.