On Thursday night, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., held a preview of its long-awaited iteration of “Afro-Atlantic Histories,” an acclaimed exhibition that considers histories and legacies of the transatlantic slave trade. There to toast the occasion was one of the Capitol’s most important figures: Kamala Harris.
In a speech delivered just hours after she presided over the confirmation of Kentanji Brown Jackson as a Supreme Court Justice, Harris called the exhibition “unlike any other in the National Gallery’s history.”
With a purview spanning several centuries and multiple continents, “Afro-Atlantic Histories” features more than 130 works that speak to the horrors of slavery and the persistence of Black communities across the world in the years since the slave trade’s end in the U.S., Europe, and Brazil.
It is an extremely ambitious show, with works from centuries past by Frans Post and John Phillip Simpson alongside works of the past 100 years by Glenn Ligon, Zanele Muholi, Barrington Watson, Frank Bowling, Paulo Nazareth, and more. Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation and a trustee at the National Gallery, called the show “historic.”
Harris seemed to agree when she said, “This is world history, and it is American history. And, for many of us, it is also family history. Yet this history is rarely taught in our schools or shown in our museums.”
Her sentiment was matched by many who have been waiting years to see “Afro-Atlantic Histories,” a version of “Histórias Afro-Atlánticas“—a show that was about 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 augmented with a few new works, including one standout sculpture by Daniel Lind-Ramos), it retains the original’s epic scope and grand ambition.
Harris praised the show for its potential to educate museum-goers on a subject that she said has gone under-recognized.
“What we are going to see, walking through these halls, is the story of the African diaspora,” she said. “Now, some of us grew up learning about it. I went to college to learn about it—I went to Howard University…. For so many others, it is a new experience—it is an introduction to an extraordinary aspect of the history of our world. When we think about it, it spans centuries and continents and, yes, local history.”
Though “Afro-Atlantic Histories” features depictions of violence, it also proposes that, under the most dehumanizing circumstances, Black people across the world found means of self-possession. Harris echoed the tempered optimism of portions of the show.
“This is an opportunity to experience joy at the artistry, at the creativity, and also an acknowledgement of all we must remember,” she said. “Let us find, when we walk through these halls, that we will be moved, but that we will also experience joy at seeing the expression. It has been about survival, about self-determination, about a commitment to humanity, about a commitment to endurance and strength and excellence.”