The legacy of the transatlantic slave trade is the focus of a groundbreaking exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Afro-Atlantic Histories traveled from the Museu de Art de São Paulo in Brazil and came to the U.S. via curator Kanitra Fletcher, on behalf of the MFAH and the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. Divided into six thematic sections and accompanied by a publication that was named one of 2021’s best art books, the exhibition explores the geographic and cultural intersections between Africa, the Americas, the Caribbean and Europe.
Here are a few of its standout moments:
Maxwell Alexandre, Éramos as cinzas e agora somos o fogo, da série Pardo é papel (We were the ashes and now we are the fire, from the series Brown Is Paper), 2018
Immediately following a family portrait by Afro-Cuban artist Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, this large mural by Maxwell Alexandre really sets the mood for the show. It’s suspended right outside the main gallery and towers in scale. The work is also very delicate, as it’s made on brown paper with folds that resemble quilted pockets and weave together various scenes of revolution, from protestors toppling police cars to slave rebellions and celebrations of freedom in Brazil.
Hank Willis Thomas, A Place to Call Home (Africa America Reflection), 2020
Later in the “Maps and Margins” section, several works address the architecture and conditions of slave ships that traveled the brutal journey of the Middle Passage. This fictional map made of mirrors (literally) reflects the divide between North America and Africa but brings the continents together. Artist Hank Willis Thomas suggests both the formal similarities between the continents and the cultural detachment from Africa that Black Americans experience as a result of the slave trade.
Ernest Crichlow, Harriet Tubman, 1953
Although created 40 years after her death, this portrait of Harriet Tubman by Harlem Renaissance painter Ernest Crichlow is stunning and inspiring. It’s a gold-framed vision of one of the most influential abolitionists in history. The “Emancipations” section also includes a wonderful suite of prints by Glenn Ligon, along with works by Arthur Jafa and Kara Walker.
Benny Andrews, Harlem USA (Migrant Series), 2004
Benny Andrews is known for collaging fabric on his canvases to add dimension to his compositions. This work visualizes everyday life in Harlem and captures the neighborhood’s merchants and the families who relocated to the city as part of the Great Migration, the mass movement of Black people from 1910 through the 1970s. This one demands a close look.
Victoria Santa Cruz, Me gritaron negra (They Shouted Black at Me), 1978
The voice of Afro-Peruvian activist and choreographer, Victoria Santa Cruz echoes through the exhibition’s “Resistance and Activisms” section. A video monitor plays footage of a riveting performance she did on navigating racism in South American. Nearby hangs a Pan-African flag by David Hammons and a small sculpture by Elizabeth Catlett.
LAST CHANCE: Afro-Atlantic Histories is open at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston through January 17 and is included in general admission. The museum will be open Thursday 11 a.m. to 9.m., Friday, Saturday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday, 12:30 pm to 6 p.m. and open Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, visit here.