On Thursday evening, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, premiered its long-awaited version of “Afro-Atlantic Stories,” an acclaimed exhibit that examines the histories and legacies of the transatlantic slave trade. To toast the occasion, one of the Capitol’s most important figures: Kamala Harris.
In a speech delivered just hours after chairing the confirmed by Kentanji Brown Jackson as a Supreme Court justice, Harris called the exhibition “unlike any other in the history of the National Gallery”.
With a scope spanning centuries and continents, “Afro-Atlantic Stories” features more than 130 works that speak to the horrors of slavery and the persistence of black communities around the world in the years since the end of the slave trade in the United States, Europe, and Brazil.
It’s a hugely ambitious show, with works from centuries past by Frans Post and John Phillip Simpson alongside works from the last 100 years by Glenn Ligon, Zanele Muholi, Barrington Watson, Frank Bowling, Paulo Nazareth, and more. Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation and trustee of the National Gallery, called the exhibition “historic”.
Harris seemed to agree when she said, “This is world history and this is American history. And, for many of us, it’s also a family affair. Yet this history is rarely taught in our schools or shown in our museums.
His sentiment was matched by many who waited years to see ‘Afro-Atlantic Stories’, a version of ‘Histórias Afro-Atlánticas’ – a show roughly three times the size that was presented at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo in 2018. Although the National Gallery exhibition is smaller (and complemented by a few new works, including a remarkable sculpture by Daniel Lind-Ramos), it retains the epic scope and grand ambition of the original.
Harris praised the show for its potential to educate museum visitors on a topic she says has become under-recognized.
“What we are going to see, walking through these halls, is the story of the African diaspora,” she said. “Now some of us have grown up learning this. I went to college to learn more – I went to Howard University…. For so many others it’s a new experience, it’s his is an introduction to an extraordinary aspect of our world’s history that, when you think about it, spans centuries and continents and, yes, local history.
Although “Afro-Atlantic Histories” features depictions of violence, it also offers that, in the most dehumanizing of circumstances, black people everywhere found ways to self-control. Harris echoed the tempered optimism of parts of the show.
“It’s an opportunity to feel joy in art, creativity, and also an acknowledgment of all that we need to remember,” she said. “Let us find, when we walk through these halls, that we will be moved, but we will also experience joy in seeing the expression. It was about survival, self-determination, commitment to humanity, commitment to endurance, strength and excellence.