"Afro-Atlantic Histories" at LACMA

Édouard Antoine Renard, A Slave Rebellion on a Slave Ship, 1833

Slavery is almost invisible in Western art. That changed only in postmodern times as contemporary Black artists took up the theme and scholars renewed interest in the relatively rare historic depictions of slavery and emancipation. The post-1960s contemporary and pre-1888 historical define the chronology of "Afro-Atlantic Histories," an international traveling exhibition now at LACMA for an unusually long run, through Sep. 10, 2023. It's a show with zeitgeist resonance, star-power objects, and surprises at every turn.

Abdias Nascimento, Exu Dambalah, 1973

Start with Brazil, as the exhibition itself did. The Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand and the Instituto Tomie Ohtake organized the show in 2018. The former is São Paulo's main art museum; the latter is named for famous-in-Brazil artist Tomie Ohtake and functions as a modern-contemporary kunsthalle. Though the exhibition has gone through nips and tucks on its U.S. tour, the LACMA version incorporates numerous works by Brazilian artists rarely seen here. 

Abdias Nascimento was not only a painter but a poet, playwright, scholar, activist, and politician. Exu Dambalah is a lyrical synthesis of African orishas and Latin-American constructivism. 

Emanoel Araújo, O Navio (The Ship), 2007. Painted wood and carbon steel. Museu de Arte de Sao Paulo Assis Chateaubriand
In O Navio (The Ship), Brazilian artist Emanoel Araújo conjoins slave ship diagrams with African wood sculpture, scarification patterns, and globalized modernism. Araújo, who died last September, founded São Paulo's Museu Afro Brasil.

Frans Post, Landscape with Anteater, about 1660. Museu de Art de Sao Paulo Assis Chateaubriand
An associate of Hals, Dutch painter Frans Post spent seven years in Brazil (1637-1644). Upon returning to Holland, he built a career on re-imagined Brazilian landscapes. He was one of the few European painters to regularly depict slavery, though Post's captives function as staffage for a New World Arcadia. 
Eugène Delacroix, Portrait of a Woman in a Blue Turban, 1827. Dallas Museum of Art
Frederic Bazille, Young Woman with Peonies, 1870. National Gallery of Art
Bazille and other struggling Impressionists lived in a Parisian district favored by Black emigres from the French colonies.
Nathaniel Jocelyn, Portrait of Cinqué, 1839. Courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis
In 1839 the Africans of the Spanish slave ship La Amistad ("Friendship") rebelled, led by Joseph Cinqué of Sierra Leone. The Africans were not seafarers and did not know how to navigate the ship that had abducted them. Intending to return to West Africa, they went ashore near Long Island and were tried for murder in Connecticut. The U.S. Supreme Court acquitted them. The case galvanized abolitionist sentiment as well as inspiring works of art, literature (Melville's "Benito Cereno"), and film. Nathaniel Jocelyn, a Connecticut abolitionist and painter, portrayed Cinqué through the lens of the Enlightenment—a "noble savage" but also, apparently, an American hero. 

Aaron Douglas, Into Bondage, 1936. National Gallery of Art
Melvin Edwards, Palmares, 1988. Museu de Arte de Sao Paulo Assis Chateaubriand
Dalton Paula, Zeferina and João de Deus Nascimento, 2018. Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand 
The names but not the likenesses of two leaders of Brazilian slave rebellions—Zeferina and João de Deus Nascimento—are recorded. Dalton Paula commemorates them in these imaginary portraits. 
Horace Pippin, School Studies, 1944. National Gallery of Art
A large slice of the exhibition consists of modern and contemporary portrayals of the African diaspora. There is considerable overlap with LACMA's "Black American Portraits" from only last year. Nevertheless, first-rate works by Jacob Lawrence, Beauford Delaney, Horace Pippin, Romare Beardon, Charles White, Clementine Hunter, and Barkley Hendricks justify the semi-redundancy. 

Hayward Oubre, untitled, 1950.  The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina
Alma Thomas, March on Washington, 1964. Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery
Otherwise DC's great abstractionist, Alma Thomas did this painting of Martin Luther King's 1963 march on Washington.
Osmond Watson, Johnny Cool, 1967. National Gallery of Jamaica
David C. Driskell, Current Forms: Yoruba Circle, 1969. National Gallery of Art

Barrington Watson, Conversation, 1981. National Gallery of Jamaica
Clementine Hunter, Black Jesus, about 1985. Smithsonian National Museum of  African American History and Culture
Kerry James Marshall, Voyager, 1992. National Gallery of Art


Japecake said…
I strongly question your assertion that "slavery is almost invisible in Western art." It may not have been a top ten subject, but it IS widely represented from Velázquez (his masterpiece, Juan de Pareja, no less) to the WPA, where it was a mainstay of "historical" murals that are now often viewed as "problematic." In the 19th century it shows up regularly in genre painting and was an essential tool of the abolitionist movement—in no way "hidden." I mean, this is an easily Googleable point.
Japecake: I agree.
Do a search for "slavery" on the Met website. There are 182 works listed. No doubt there is vastly more art heritage on slavery at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History & Culture, to name but one further venue.
One Met work is particularly interesting to me: a ca. 1964 chess set in bronze, titled "Chessgame: Liberty versus Slavery," designed by Alfred Van Loen (1924–1993, American, born Germany).

Following is a list of the cast pieces:
a) Joy-Tenderness H. 6 3/16 in.
b) Play-Security H. 5 5/8 in.
c) The Scholar H. 7 5/8 in.
d) The United Family H. 10 7/8 in.
e) Peace-Freedom H. 9 3/4 in.
f) Laborer H. 7 5/8 in.
g) Game-Confidence H. 5 3/4 in.
h) Pride-Protection H. 6 in.
i) Drummer H. 4 1/16 in.
j) Clarinetist H. 5 3/4 in.
k) Cellist H. 4 3/4 in.
l) Accordionist H. 4 1/2 in.
m) Cymbal Player H. 4 1/2 in.
n) Guitarist H. 4 11/16 in.
o) Harpist H. 4 in.
p) Violinist H. 4 5/16 in.
aa) Bondage H. 5 5/16 in.
bb) Strangulation H. 5 7/8 in.
cc) Hurt Helpless H. 7 in.
dd) Prisoner-Imprisoned H. 10 1/4 in.
ee) Nurse-Pity H. 8 5/8 in.
ff) Hopeless-Damaged H. 7 in.
gg) Brutality-Cruelty H. 6 1/4 in.
hh) Chained H. 5 in.
ii) Wounded H. 4 1/4 in.
jj) Sick H. 4 9/16 in.
kk) Crushed H. 4 3/8 in.
ll) Hopeless H. 4 7/16 in.
mm) Beggar H. 3 15/16 in.
nn) Despair H. 4 5/16 in.
oo) Cripple H. 4 9/16 in.
pp) Blind H. 4 5/16 in.
Anonymous said…
> I strongly question your assertion...

EVERYTHING is filtered through the social, cultural, political lens of a person.

"You say tomato, I say tomahto."

Look at how medicine and medical treatments over the past 2.5 years have been very politicized. In general, the gatekeepers of EVERYTHING - in the field of arts, culture, education, athletics, government, economics, etc - are affected by what's known as influencers, pecking order and normalcy bias.

The future Lucas museum ("treacle") is going to be another example of that. The future LACMA building ("concrete overpass with floor-to-ceiling windows") will be an additional case of that.

As for some of the images posted for the "Afro-Atlantic" blog entry? They're examples of hidden talent existing out there. So who gets the most attention - or is generally ignored - is very much dependent on the gatekeepers of culture, history, politics and economics.
Anonymous said…
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes bad art/bad politics is just bad art/bad politics:


Hank Willis Thomas’s Martin Luther King Jr.
Monument – The artist’s sculpture in Boston
has become the subject of unflattering
comparisons. Featuring the disembodied arms
of the civil rights leader in an embrace
with his wife, Coretta Scott King, a fair
number of Twitter users—and at least one
relative of the Kings’s—think it looks
like a turd, or worse, a phallus. The
“insulting” artwork “looks more like a
pair of hands hugging a beefy penis than
a special moment shared by the iconic

^ As with the new LACMA overpass, I bet that sculpture eventually becomes a major selfie or Instagram moment.
Anonymous said…
^^^This guy must be the art critic for the QAnon daily...

Re "the art critic for the QAnon daily": a lot of words, saying nothing.
Anonymous said…
> This guy must be the art critic for the QAnon daily...

Actually, the criticism of Hank Thomas's sculpture comes from what likely are mainly self-identifying progressives or leftists - or apolitical types - whereas I believe QAnon is associated with mainly conservatives or rightwingers.

Anonymous said…
> a lot of words, saying nothing.

By contrast, I appreciate your succinct list, dimensions and all.
Anonymous said…
^^^Look beyond the obvious.

If you are criticizing the politicization of art, it's mainly a conservative or rightwing position.

Because what the QAnon art critic is really saying is that when "white" men were the ones making the art, there were more eternal standards and art was not political. That's bull shit. The Railway is a political painting. The Death of Socrates is a political painting. Las Meninas is a political painting.

But hey, if you want to ignore all that to make a convenient point about the Hank Thomas controversy, I hear the MAGA Newsletter and KKK Times are looking for an art critic. By all means, apply...
Anonymous said…
^ Your leftism would make Mao Tse-tung proud. Then there's this person:


> The most striking example of selective compassion
> was Hitler. He was a vegetarian and opposed
> vivisection of animals.
Anonymous said…
To the person who mentioned The Railway, The Death of Socrates (my favorite painting), and Las Meninas, great comment...

Those paintings ask us to take a side --- the side of the child or the train; the side of Socrates or the side of Plato; the side of the painter or that of the King.

The politics of the painting is embedded in the composition. It's unavoidable.

--- J. Garcin