On Thursday night, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., previewed its much-anticipated iteration of “Afro-Atlantic History,” a popular exhibition that takes into account the histories and legacies of the transatlantic slave trade. There to roast the occasion was one of the most important figures on the Capitol: Kamala Harris.
In a speech he gave just hours after she chaired Kentanji Brown Jackson confirmed As a Supreme Court justice, Harris described the exhibition as “unparalleled in the history of the National Gallery.”
With a scope spanning several centuries and multiple continents, “Afro-Atlantic History” includes more than 130 works that tell of the horrors of slavery and the persistence of black communities around the world in the years since the end of the slave trade in the United States, Europe, and Brazil.
It’s a very ambitious show, with works from centuries past by France Post and John Philip Simpson alongside works from The Past 100 Years by Glenn Lejeune, Zanelle Muholy, Barrington Watson, Frank Bowling, Paolo of Nazareth, and more. Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation and a member of the National Gallery’s Board of Trustees, described the show as “historic.”
Harris seemed to agree when she said, “This is world history, and it is American history. And for many of us, it’s also family history. However, this history is seldom taught in our schools or shown in our museums.”
Her view matched many who had waited years to see “Afro-Atlantic History,” a version of “Histórias Afro-Atlánticas” – a show nearly three times larger that was presented at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo in 2018. While the National Gallery’s show is smaller (and enhanced by some new work, including a landmark sculpture by Daniel Lind-Ramos), it retains the epic scale and grandiose ambition of the original.
Harris praised the show for its potential in educating museum-goers on a topic she said was underappreciated.
“What we will see, as we walk around these halls, is the story of the African diaspora,” she said. “Now, some of us have grown up learning about it. I went to college to learn more about it — I went to Howard University…. For many, it’s a new experience — it’s an introduction to an extraordinary aspect of our world history. When we think about it, it spans centuries, continents, and yes Local history.
Although “Afro-Atlantic History” presents images of violence, it also suggests that under the most humane conditions, blacks all over the world have found means of self-possession. Harris echoed moderate optimism in parts of the show.
“This is an opportunity to experience the joy in art and creativity and also an appreciation for all that we have to remember,” she said. “Let us find, as we walk through these halls, that we will be moved, but we will also experience joy in seeing the expression. It was about survival, self-determination, commitment to humanity, a commitment to endurance, strength, and excellence.”