African Modernism in America
A New Exhibition at Fisk University Aims to Change Our Perceptions of African Art
Art in Profile
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A short time after Nashville artist Jamaal Sheats became director and curator of galleries at Fisk University in 2015, he got a phone call. Might Fisk have available in its collection any works by Akinola Lasekan, a mid-20th century Nigerian artist?
“Keep in mind that Fisk has been a collecting institution since the 1870s,” Sheats points out. “Our holdings are vast.”
Lasekan is not all that widely known in the United States today, but when Sheats checked the database of more than 4,500 art objects in the university’s collections, he found that Fisk held a number of important Lasekan pieces.
The interested caller was Perrin Lathrop, a Ph.D. candidate in art and archaeology at Princeton University studying African Modernism, with a focus on Lasekan in particular. When Lathrop made a research trip to Nashville in 2016, she helped Sheats and then-associate curator Nikoo Paydar bring the Lasekan pieces out of storage for study, along with other African modernist works in the university’s holdings.
“I came to Nashville to look at Lasekan’s work, and I was really stunned by all of the other works by modern African artists in the collection,” Lathrop says. “That’s when the three of us started thinking we should have an exhibition of this work.” Six years later, African Modernism in America is a reality, open through February 2023 at Fisk’s Carl Van Vechten Gallery.
“I remember opening up some of the Lasekan watercolors,” Sheats says. “When we took them out of the packaging, which felt very old and brittle, I could almost hear music coming from the rays of light and the vibrancy of the color that came from those watercolors.”
Some of the African modernist works in the Fisk collection were exhibited in the U.S. and Africa from the late 1940s through the late ’60s. However, they were not always appreciated by curators at major museums in cultural centers like New York, at least in part because the work was not “primitive” and didn’t fit in with stereotypical ideas at the time about African art.
The collection that inspired this exhibition came to Fisk in 1967 as a gift from the philanthropic Harmon Foundation, which fostered relationships and cultural exchanges between American and African artists, often supporting exhibitions and artists’ travels between continents.
“I could almost hear music coming from the rays of light and the vibrancy of the color that came from those watercolors.”
Jamaal B. Sheats
Director and Curator of Galleries
Although there has been some scholarly interest in the work in the years since, up until now these paintings haven’t received the much wider exposure of their American contemporaries. Lathrop’s research on Lasekan and on works by other African modernists, many of which have not had public showings in this century, seeded the idea for what would become African Modernism in America. After the exhibit closes at Fisk in February, it will travel to The Phillips Collection in Washington D.C., The Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati, and Kemper Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri.
African Modernism in America brings to light many major modern works from Fisk’s extensive collection of accomplished African and American artists. “This show includes work by more than 50 artists, with more than 70 works from [Fisk’s] collection,” Sheats says.
“A number of these works have just come through conservancy, and we had 17 students working with that conservation project,” he adds. “In fact, we’ve had students involved in the show every step of the way. They even helped edit our catalog, checking the color proofs to make sure they accurately represented the artists’ works. They are also our ‘gallery ambassadors.’ ”
Combined with several pieces on loan from other institutions and private collections, the collected works tell the story of transatlantic connections and influences among American artists and African artists working in the mid-20th century.
“These are definitely works that are in conversation with each other,” Sheats says. “You can see influences going both ways across the Atlantic.”
The show also explains the roles patronage, diplomacy, and American “soft power” efforts played in shaping cross-cultural exchanges during the decolonization and postcolonial era in Africa, which coincided with the Cold War and the American civil rights movement.
The exhibition catalog details the Harmon Foundation’s significant role in developing the collection. When the foundation closed in 1967, it shared a substantial collection of artworks with two HBCUs — Hampton University in Virginia, and Fisk.
They’re not thinking of paintings; they’re thinking of reliquaries. This exhibition challenges that perception.
Jamaal B. Sheats
“That gift was made because those were institutions that would carry on the foundation’s interests in continuing to promote the visibility of African artists,” says Lathrop. “At Fisk, [Harmon] gave the collection in part because of their recognition of David Driskell, who was chair of the art department. Fisk recognized the importance of curating work by African artists at a time when other institutions were not as receptive to that idea.”
The collection features paintings by Lasekan and work by African artists Etso Clara Ugbodaga-Ngu, Sam Joseph Ntiro, Skunder Boghossian, Ben Enwonwu, and Peter Clarke, plus many others whose names the curators hope will become more widely recognized as a result of this exhibition.
African Modernist pieces are being shown along with Modernist paintings by American artists of the African diaspora. Some of the latter’s names might be more familiar to American audiences: Aaron Douglas, founding art department chair at Fisk, and his successor, artist and art historian David C. Driskell, along with Jacob Lawrence, John Biggers, and William H. Johnson.
The curators hope the exhibition will challenge some of the assumptions audiences tend to make about African art. “I have people who call me who want to know about our African art collection,” Sheats says. “They’re not thinking of paintings; they’re thinking of reliquaries. This exhibition challenges that perception. When you hear ‘African art,’ you think masks, reliquaries, beadwork. But this is an exhibition primarily of paintings. These are contemporary artists of their time, working in contemporary media. They are pulling in all of those cultural traditions, but in a contemporary way.”
Many of the African artists, like their American counterparts, studied at prestigious art schools in Africa, Europe, and North America.
Sheats says the timing of the exhibition is also important. “As collections evolve and change and the world changes, the audience changes, too,” he says. “The broader purpose of our gallery is to provide wider access to our collections, and to increase and foster more engagement with our collections. That’s why this exhibition is so important: because we are one of the largest repositories of artistic productions from these artists.
“Additionally, the [exhibition] catalog offers new scholarship and artists’ biographies, and it helps reinsert these artists who have been underrecognized more broadly back into canon. So that’s the exciting part!”
One of the historical pieces Lathrop is most excited to be sharing with a new audience is a portrait of a 19th-century Nigerian warrior by Lasekan.
“[Lasekan] was the first African artist to contact the Harmon Foundation in 1947, and was living in Lagos at that time,” Lathrop says. “He had a real interest in developing an international audience for his work. He had a varied practice, but I think of him as a kind of visual historian in the way that he documented different stories and moments from Nigeria’s past.
“At Fisk, they have a very important history painting that he created in the late 1950s, right before [Nigerian] independence from British colonialism in the 1960s. This oil painting documents an important warrior, Ogedengbe, in the civil wars among different Yoruba cities in Southwestern Nigeria in the late 19th century. This is right before British colonialism took hold. So he’s thinking ahead to an independent Nigerian nation and, in creating a kind of national mythology, he’s also looking back to a pre-colonial past and imagining this history painting that documents an important warrior in an important battle in a pre-colonial era. So he’s really trying to recognize these individuals of Nigerian history.
“What’s so incredible to me is he believed that this history is not only for a Nigerian nation, but also one that the world should know,” Lathrop continues. “The fact that he sent that painting to the United States for an American audience to see is incredible.”
In addition to historical works, the exhibition includes a newly commissioned piece by sculptor and installation artist Ndidi Dike, who is based in Lagos, Nigeria. Her piece, “The Politics of Selection,” is a multimedia collage installation that incorporates historical documents, photographs, and images from the exhibition to examine gender bias in the practice of art and art collection.
Dike conducted her research and developed the piece at Fisk. She was drawn to the commission for several reasons, she says. First, she comes from a part of Nigeria that’s known for its red earth. She had heard that Tennessee also had red earth, so she thought she’d feel at home. More importantly, though, Dike saw parallels in how women artists are regarded and underappreciated in the U.S. and in Nigeria.
The background of the collage features the image of Ladi Kwali as it appears on Nigerian banknotes. “In Nigeria, we have an image of this woman, this artist, on our money. Yet very few people, even among Nigerians, know who she is or what she accomplished,” Dike says.
While studying Fisk’s holdings, Dike perceived that women artists were underrepresented in the exhibition collection. She uses her collage, therefore, to draw attention to women artists, including Kwali, along with artist and instructor Etso Clara Ugbodaga-Ngu; Viola Wood, who studied art at Fisk; and Afi Ekong, a Nigerian artist and art entrepreneur.
In her catalog essay “On the Politics of Selection,” Dike writes, “Historically, women artists, in Nigeria and elsewhere, have been marginalized by the mainstream art world. Their ambitions were constrained by gatekeeping from the start; women were often encouraged to study art education, graphics, or textile design rather than painting and sculpture … My work … attempts to reveal and redress the erasure of women artists; it foregrounds the material presence, and absence, of women in writing the history of African modernism.”
Given the extensive holdings of modern African art at Fisk, the selection process for the show was challenging. “You try as hard as you can to approach it with research and informed choices,” Lathrop says. “There are so many artists in the collection, and you can’t choose them all because there isn’t room.”
The collection shown in African Modernism in America promises a rare glimpse at these often-overlooked works.
“I mainly hope that visitors will take away the name of an artist they didn’t know before but whom they really want to learn more about,” Lathrop says. “Because I think the show ultimately is about increasing the visibility of the contributions made by African artists in the mid-20th century, and to recognize an institution like Fisk for being a steward of that work.”
African Modernism In America, 1947-67 is now open at Carl Van Vechten Art Gallery at Fisk University and will run through Feb. 12, 2023. For more info and hours, visit fiskuniversitygalleries.org.