Taft exhibit explores complex history of African artists, American patrons

The Taft Museum of Art is the final stop on a national tour of the first major exhibition examining the complex historical relationships between African artists and American patrons and cultural organizations.

“African Modernism in America” explores how major cultural events of the 1950s and ’60s affected African art. Key points in history include the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, the decolonization of Africa and the global Cold War. The exhibition includes nearly 80 pieces.

The show runs from Feb. 10 through May 19.

Aaron Douglas (1899–1979, United States), “Lagos, Nigeria,” 1956. Watercolor on paper. 8 7/8 x 11 7/8 inches. Collection of Steven L. Jones, Philadelphia and Chicago.
© 2022 Heirs of Aaron Douglas /Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy American Federation of Arts

“This is an exceptional exhibition that sheds light on cross-cultural artistic exchange,” said Taft associate curator Ann Glasscock, who’s curating the installation of the show in Cincinnati. “The exhibition also provides the opportunity to challenge assumptions about African art and its influences, reintroducing these artists into the contextualization of art histories, continued research, and scholarship.”

The exhibition’s co-organizers are the American Federation of Arts and the Fisk University Galleries. Many of the paintings, sculptures and works on paper came from the collection of Fisk University, a private historically Black college in Nashville. Much of the school’s collection came as gifts from the Harmon Foundation.

Following World War II, the Fisk and the foundation – along with other institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York and other historically Black colleges and universities – supported and exhibited the work of Black artists, including modern African artists Ben Enwonwu (Nigeria), Ibrahim El-Salahi (Sudan) and Skunder Boghossian (Ethiopia), whose works are featured in the exhibition.

Ibrahim El-Salahi (born 1930, Sudan). “Vision of the Tomb,” 1965. Oil on canvas. 36 x 36 inches.
Collection of The Africa Center, New York, 2008.2.1

Below is a statement from the Taft Museum on the collection.

“Seen together, these objects reveal a transcontinental network of artists, curators, and scholars who challenged assumptions about African art in the United States, and thereby encouraged American engagement with African artists as contemporaries. The inventive nature of the works in this exhibition also challenged the assumptions of the time about African art being isolated to a ‘primitive past.’ Some pieces took inspiration from early Christian art, West African sculpture, and Nigerian literature, while others reflect the influences of American jazz and modern European art.”

The exhibition also includes a new commission by Nigeria-based sculptor Ndidi Dike. The work interrogates the Cold-War-era collecting histories presented in the exhibition, including those of the Harmon Foundation. 

“African Modernism in America” features works by nearly 50 artists overall.

Exhibition details

“African Modernism in America” has been traveling the United States since October 2022. It debuted at the Fisk University Galleries and traveled to the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum in Saint Louis and The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C before making its final stop in the Queen City.

The show opens in Cincinnati on Feb. 10. General admission to the exhibition is free for Taft members, military and youth (17 and under). Prices are $15 for adults and $12 for seniors. 

Beyond the art, the Taft also set up a series of events to coincide with the show’s three-month run. Events kick off on Feb. 11 with a “Family Fun Day” during which guests can make art inspired by the exhibition. They’ll can also experience African drumming and dance workshops led by Bi-Okoto. 

Featured Programs & Events

  • Sunday, Feb. 11, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Family Funday – Celebrate the opening of “African Modernism in America” on this special day. Make art inspired by the exhibition and enjoy African drumming and dance workshops led by Bi-Okoto. 
  • Thursday, Feb. 29, 6-7 p.m. Signature Talk – Perrin M. Lathrop, PhD – assistant curator of African art at the Princeton University Art Museum will lead a discussion entitled “Negotiating Authenticity Between Africa and America.” It focuses on the work of artist Ben Enwonwu and his relationship with the Harmon Foundation from 1950–1957. Lathrop is co-curator of “African Modernism in America.”
  • Sunday, March 16, 1-4 p.m. Abstract painting with Cedric Cox – Explore the exhibition and make your own masterpiece inspired by the show. Guests will work with local artist Cedric Cox to create their own abstract painting. 
  • Saturday, March 30, noon to 3 p.m. Workshop & Tour, “SoL Expressions” – Join writer, artist and performer SoL for a tour of the exhibition. Following the tour, SoL will host a workshop encouraging art reflection and self-expression. Participants will discover artworks that resonate with their soul and respond in the medium of their choosing. 
  • April 28 and May 12, 10: 30-11:30 a.m. “Movement & Music” with Bi-Okoto With live drumming, this class will teach the fundamentals of traditional West African dance with an emphasis on understanding the accompanying drum rhythms. Classes start with a thorough warm-up, followed by a sequence of movements across the floor. The session runs for 45 minutes, with time reserved for a question-and-answer session.

African Modernism in America

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