Review » “African modernism in America, 1947-1967” –

by MMC
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In 1960, to mark their home country’s independence from Britain, two Nigerian artists offered less than festive paintings: one, a cockfight; the other, a rocky landscape. In Madness (1960), Demas Nwoko paints a rooster and a guinea fowl attacking each other: feathers flying, beaks scratching. The sinister tones visualized clashes within both nationalist (green and white for the Nigerian flag) and internationalist and pan-African politics (black, green and red for the Pan-African flags).

In Olumo Rock (1960), Afi Ekong opted for a more subtle political allegory and his oil on canvas appeared in the first survey of contemporary African art in the United States, in 1961. With impasto strokes in earthy tones, it evokes the he steep entrance to the titular mountain located in Abeokuta, where the Egba people sought refuge throughout the 19th century as their political rivals waged war in the region.

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Both works circumvent the mythology commonly associated with the romanticized pageantry of decolonization. Like so many of the works that appear alongside them in “African Modernism in America, 1947-1967,” they demonstrate the rich range of artistic responses to the tangle of mid-century modernism, African nationalism, black internationalism and cold war geopolitics. The traveling exhibition of 70 works centers around an impressive selection of oils, but also features sculptures, lithographs and watercolors by African and diaspora artists.

By mid-century, both in North America and Africa, formal colonialism and racial hierarchy were slowly being dismantled in favor of an elusive freedom. The exhibition carefully contextualizes black art of this period, focusing on the complex exchanges and dynamics between African artists and American patrons.

For patrons of white art, it was only after World War II that African art began to be seen as “modern,” rather than frozen in a primitive past. Which is ironic, because Western modernists exploited this “primitive” art for their innovative forms. But by mid-century, American philanthropists and the State Department began sponsoring tours by contemporary African artists. They also began financing exhibitions and purchasing African art for private and public collections. The exhibition maps these institutional arteries in its first and second sections, based on works of art exhibited by these institutions or created by Africans during their visit to the United States.

The first American survey of contemporary African art, one that featured the work of Ekong Olumo Rock, was established in 1961 at the Harmon Foundation, a white philanthropic institution whose purported mission was to promote racial equality. The Foundation helped facilitate the Museum of Modern Art in New York’s first acquisition of African art: the luminous canvas by Sam Joseph Ntiro Men bring banana beer to their bride at night (1956). At the time, Ntiro was on a funded visit to the United States. Dozens of other artists did the same over the two decades, including Ben Enwonwu, Skunder Boghossian, Demas Nwoko and Ibrahim El-Salahi. Virtuoso examples of their work during this period provide a rare opportunity to see Africa’s greatest modernists in conversation with one another.

Much of the capital that fueled these exchanges was distributed for a specific motivation: Cold War diplomacy. State officials and philanthropists worked to win the hearts and minds of the Global South in favor of liberal democracy by funding exhibition tours or trips to the United States. The Harmon Foundation was close to the State Department, although it was never officially affiliated with it; The Carnegie Corporation permitted Ntiro’s American stay, after receiving clandestine funding from the Central Intelligence Agency for such tours.

Installation view of Ndidi Dike The Politics of Selection, 2022, in “African Modernism in America, 1947-1967” at the Kemper Museum, St. Louis.

Photo Alise O’Brien/Courtesy Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, St. Louis

Beyond these fascinating Cold War spy stories, many stories of African and black art can be told this way: by tracing the individuals and infrastructures that still shape the conditions of artistic production. These include state officials, paternalistic philanthropists, white-run institutions, and curatorial gatekeepers.

I would argue, in fact, that we can still tell the story of black art today this way: A 2018 study by the Mellon Foundation found that 84% of leaders, curators, conservators, and educators of museums were white, and another in 2017, from the American Alliance of Museums, found that half of the signs in American museums were entirely white. Rather than presenting this moment in the Cold War as unique, this exhibition draws attention to the continuities that still shape the reception of African and Black art.

But more importantly, the exhibition confronts this dynamic with a parallel history in the third section: the black institutions, galleries, and collectors also responsible for this effervescent moment of cultural production. Historically, black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are the protagonists here: they have long been places where contemporary African art has been taken seriously – a fact that the exhibition makes clear by displaying some of these objects from their collections , alongside the works of the artists they employed.

Meanwhile, groundbreaking gallerists like Merton D. Simpson helped bring a generation of African artists to the attention of the United States. Indeed, the Harmons only became interested in African art after a Nigerian artist, Akinola Lasekan, sent the first samples of his work in 1947; they are exhibited here for the first time since
the 1960s.

Other pieces show how African American artists used sources of funding for cultural exchange that emerged from the Cold War to spark a continued commitment to African modernism. John Biggers’ 1957 tour of West Africa, funded by UNESCO, was a lifelong source of inspiration for him, and he passed it down from generation to generation as a teacher at the Texas State University for Negroes (now Texas Southern University). Vivid sound Kumasi Market (1962), we learn, was a favorite of its original collector, Maya Angelou.

The exhibition brings together transatlantic aesthetic exchanges at a time when African and diasporic artists were experiencing a new type of visibility. But his story is in no way idealized and triumphant. Rather, it is a nuanced look at how white-led institutions and governments used African art, and how black artists benefited from and were hampered by that support. this.

The exhibition ends with a new commission by Ndidi Dike, a collage installation entitled The selection policy (2022). It is a tribute to Afi Ekong and many other neglected modernist women artists, curators, and gallerists, made with materials from the Harmon Foundation archives. The work echoes many of the exhibition’s impressive curatorial efforts, including Ekong’s Olumo Rockwhich, like many other works, is exhibited here for the first time since the mid-20th century.

When Harmon closed its doors in 1967, it donated its holdings to two HBCUs: Fisk University in Nashville and Hampton University in Virginia. In a rare reversal of art history, this treasure trove of contemporary African art was entrusted to black institutions. Now, these archives of black modernism can continue to tell us about the externally imposed conditions of modernity and the efforts of African and diasporic artists to reshape them.

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