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Afro-Atlantic Histories: Where Do I Start?

In November 1858, a ship called Wanderer docked at Jekyll Island, Georgia, having sailed from Congo, West Africa. Fifty years after the United States had outlawed the transatlantic slave trade, the Wanderer was illegally trafficking hundreds of African people to be sold into slavery.

Some 400 of these people survived, but many did not. The captives on the Wanderer who lost their lives during the brutal voyage from the African continent to the Americas, known as the Middle Passage, are memorialized in the painting Voyager by Kerry James Marshall, on view in the National Gallery’s Afro-Atlantic Histories exhibition.

A man and a woman with black skin stand in a sage and olive-green boat that comes toward us on a wavy, dripping band of cobalt blue that spans the lower edge of this loosely hanging, square canvas. The word “WANDERER” is written in white capital letters along the bow of the boat. Closer to us, in the boat, a woman is seen from the hips up. An oval, cloud-like form covers her torso, shoulders, and the area behind her head. It is white with rose-pink swirls, and has a few black lines creating scallops around the edge. A black shape at her waist, just over a cobalt-blue skirt, could indicate that at least one arm is bent behind her back. The penis, thighs, and knees of a man are seen between the boat and the triangular, pale lilac-purple sail. The sail is painted with long, curling strokes of violet purple up its center. A long, white pennant with two gold stars flutters from the boat’s burgundy-red mast, which has a crosspiece just below the pennant. The water is painted with strokes of royal blue, which partially drip over a white skull at the lower center. The boat is set against a background layered in washes of white, shell pink, and baby blue, with swirls and thin strokes of brick red scattered across it. A yellow sun outlined in deeper gold peeks above the horizon in the lower left, and is repeated with more orbs that together make an arc that curves to the upper right corner. A few geometric line drawings hover next to the woman, on our left, such as a compass-like cross with a crosshatched oval at each end. A black number "1" floats in the lower left, above the water, and a black number "7" floats near the upper left. Two more black sevens float near the upper right, next to another heart-shaped line drawing. The background transitions from the pale washes to darker orbs of pink and blue, that overlap a band of black that nearly spans the top edge. In that upper zone, a black, gold, and red compass floats near the top of the mast, to our left. A sheet with anatomical illustrations hangs from the left arm of the mast. The drawings show cell clusters and human fetuses, some circled in red. A second drawing of a house circled in lilac purple hangs on the right arm, next to a third drawing of concentric circles.

Kerry James Marshall, Voyager, 1992, acrylic and collage on canvas, Corcoran Collection (Gift of the Women’s Committee of the Corcoran Gallery of Art), 2014.79.52

“I’m acutely aware of the general absence of Black figures in the center . . . of the pictures that became the foundation of the art history that we know,” said Marshall in a 2014 interview. The recipient of a MacArthur “Genius Grant” and many other honors, Marshall (b. 1955) has exhibited widely since the late 1970s. One hallmark of his prolific, highly acclaimed body of work has been a devotion to the Black figure—in his words, bringing “the Black figure from the margin to the center.”

Voyager is just one of the many works in Afro-Atlantic Histories that center the Black figure. The exhibition features artists from Africa, Europe, the Americas, and the Caribbean—the “Afro-Atlantic” or “Black Atlantic,” those places marked by the transatlantic slave trade and its violent trafficking of African peoples across the Atlantic Ocean. Their powerful paintings, sculptures, photographs, and multimedia works explore a multiplicity of histories as varied and diverse as the lived experiences of Afro-descendant people throughout the Diaspora.

We know that history—at least the textbook version of it, with a capital H—often privileges a single perspective over others. Many people find themselves and their cultures excluded from mainstream narratives.

For example, with regard to European history, the 17th century is often referred to as the “Dutch Golden Age.” This era is described as a time of great flourishing, exemplified in part by the luminous paintings of Rembrandt van Rijn and Johannes Vermeer. Yet do these stories acknowledge that this so-called golden age—which included artistic innovations and great prosperity for some—was also inextricably linked with massive trafficking and exploitation of African peoples?  

And international audiences have become familiar with the type of European subjects painted by Rembrandt and Vermeer—so much so that one inspired Tracy Chevalier’s best-selling novel, Girl with a Pearl Earring. But how many have seen Dom Miguel de Castro, Emissary of Kongo, also a “golden age” portrait, but of a Black nobleman?

"Histories" instead of "History"

In contrast to the conventional, unilateral view of one overarching narrative or perspective, Afro-Atlantic Histories instead acknowledges a multiplicity of narratives; think “histories” instead of “History.” These histories—histórias in Portuguese, the language of the Europeans who colonized Brazil and trafficked more enslaved Africans there than any other country in the Western Hemisphere—are varied and complex.

Some, the irrefutable evidence of this brutal chapter in our history, are intensely painful to behold: the shocking photograph of a Black man’s horrifically scarred back; the cruelly precise drawings of devices used to torture enslaved people; the unthinkably inhumane slave ship plans. There are histories of lamentation, of inescapable grief.

Other histories are provocative and courageous, stunning and resplendent. They recount beauty, defiance, spirituality, creativity, pride, resistance, and self-determination.

We see paintings by Clementine Hunter (1886–1988), of rural Louisiana, who began to make art in her 50s and whose irrepressible creative gifts produced more than 5,000 works. We see works that commemorate and uplift past histories, such as those by Arthur Jafa (b. 1960) and Eustáquio Neves (b. 1955) that pay homage to Gordon, the formerly enslaved Black man whose image galvanized abolitionist sentiment during the US Civil War.

Zanele Muholi, Ntozakhe II, (Parktown), 2016, photographic wall mural from digital file, Alfred H. Moses and Fern M. Schad Fund, 2021.88.1, © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of the artist, Yancey Richardson, New York, and Stevenson Cape Town/Johannesburg

We encounter the regal Black subject of Ntozakhe II, (Parktown), a photographic reimagining and critique of the Statue of Liberty by contemporary South African artist Zanele Muholi (b. 1972).

“What is the color of the Statue of Liberty? Whose race is the figure monumentalized by Lady Liberty?” asks Muholi, who grew up under apartheid. “What kind of freedom are we talking about?”

From across more than 400 years and four continents, Afro-Atlantic Histories brings together expressions of Black trauma, transcendence, beauty, and strength.

This exhibition is on view at the National Gallery April 10 through July 17.