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New Exhibit Shows Africa’s Influence on Diaspora Art in US

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  • Smithsonian Senior Curator Virginia Mecklenburg discusses African-American art with Ricci Shryock

Ricci Shryock

The West African man is dressed in the khaki uniform and red fez worn by French colonial soldiers of the era. But he wasn’t a French soldier – he was a famous Senegalese dancer based in Paris at the time, Francois Benga.

Now immortalized in James A. Porter’s 1935 painting, “Soldado Senegales,” his portrait today hangs among the many art works on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s “African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era and Beyond” exhibit. Though not all of the exhibit’s works claim African influence, the portrait by Porter is one of the many examples of the close relationship between the U.S.-based Harlem Renaissance and the Negritude movement in France.

The Harlem Renaissance, which began in the U.S. around 1919, emerged as a movement to challenge racism and stereotypes through the arts. Just a decade later, Africans living in France, who were influenced by the Harlem Renaissance, developed their own style –  Negritude – as a way to use art to throw off French colonial racism.

“There’s a very close relationship, because these artists, particularly those who are in France in the 1930s and into the 1940s, were very much connected with what was going on in French art, literature, thought,” said Virginia Mecklenburg, a senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “The poet Langston Hughes is also talking about things like tradition and heritage and how something that was originally African, how it transforms in a sort of river as it flows into and is the source really for culture in other countries in the diaspora, including in the United States.”

The exhibit’s 100 works – photographs, sculptures and paintings–- span a variety of eras and ideas. Mecklenburg said that in two of the self-portraits on display, the artists chose to highlight their African heritage.

Loïs Mailou Jones placed African sculpture in her piece and Malvin Gray Johnson chose to paint African masks next to himself. “These self-portraits are a way of saying who they are as artists as they look out at us, and there are things in the background of their studio rooms that give indications of how they want to identify themselves. In both instances, they want to talk about being African-American in terms of Africa.”

The exhibit will run through September 3 in Washington, and afterward it will travel to additional U.S. venues through 2014.

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