Africans in America is a group show co-curated by gallery director Liza Essers and American artist Hank Willis Thomas that takes place over two locations: Goodman Gallery Johannesburg and Johannesburg Art Gallery. The exhibition’s thematic focus has been conceived in part to complement the rich diversity of perspectives, exchanges and discussions on the agenda of Black Portraiture[s] III: Reinventions: Strains of Histories and Cultures, a major international conference that took place 17-19 November in Johannesburg. The symposium and exhibition, as well as the Where We Are exhibition at Goodman Gallery Cape Town, form part of In Context 2016, an ongoing curatorial series initiated by Goodman Gallery director Liza Essers in 2010.
The starting point for this exhibition was an artwork called A Place to Call Home (Africa America), which
Thomas made in 2009 to open up discussion about the unique intersection of geographical, historical, political, economic and cultural associations that are evoked by the term ‘African American’. A wall sculpture rendered starkly in black metal, it depicts the map of North America and, beneath it, the continent of Africa instead of South America. A Place to Call Home points to the mythological connection so many Black Americans have to Africa, inventing a geographical home for them even as it problematises their hyphenated identity. “Our roots may be from there but many of us don’t necessarily feel any more at home on the continent than we do on the continent of our birth. Our home is a place in between,” says Thomas.
“‘African American’ has typically been used to describe the descendants of enslaved Africans brought to the United States prior to the 20th century. The 2008 election of Barack Obama – Kenyan and American,
a literal African American – as President of the United States brought to light a new definition of the term. Over the past half century there has been a growing population of Africans in America with different cultural and historical legacies. They are not descendants of slaves but immigrants from post- colonial countries and their children. Like many other American immigrants, they came as strivers, hoping to attain a part of the ‘American dream’ for themselves and their families. Like many other immigrants as well as African Americans, they faced prejudice, racism, and discrimination, but often responded to it differently, if only because it was not a social code they were conditioned to understand. As a result, many newly minted African Americans gained a double-consciousness – African and American.”
“However, at the same time that Africans were coming to the U.S. in search of opportunity, many Americans were going to the continent in search of a deeper and more conscious connection than the romantic and/or distorted representations they had been given. As a result, many of them also gained new perspectives on themselves and the cultures that forged them.”
It is this shift in perspective that Africans in America explores – but from a wider ambit, encompassing Central and South America, too. This exhibition aims to highlight a conceptual connection between the artists included more than the works themselves. They are uniquely qualified to be described as African American, not because of nationality or ethnicity, but because of the unique relationship they have forged with a continent and a country through their creative practice and biography.
Alongside more established artists such as Wangechi Mutu, Alfredo Jaar, Julie Mehretu, Theaster Gates, Odili Donald Odita, Kehinde Wiley and Carrie Mae Weems, they include Brazilian artist Paulo Nazareth, whose work engages with his country’s complex history and cultural mix; Brendan Fernandes, a Canadian artist of Kenyan and Indian descent whose work is largely inspired by W.E.B. Du Bois’ Pan-Africanism; Kigali-born Valerie Piraino, who references the long history of mining and environmental damage on the African continent; and peripatetic Eritrean artist Dawit L. Petros, who investigates migration as a key constituent of modernity.
Africans in America attempts to give voice to this multiplicity, this host of attachments and experiences that is about having two states of mind in one. It is not as much about an ethnic heritage or a geographic location as it is about the places we take with us when we go anywhere.