This Week in Black Art and Culture: The Smithsonian Returns Benin Bronzes, London’s National Portrait Gallery and More

This Week in Black Art and Cultured is sponsored by The Children’s Trust

This week in Black art and culture, The Smithsonian Institution said it would return the majority of its Benin Bronzes collection to Nigeria. The National Portrait Gallery in London purchased five self-portraits by women-identifying artists. Los Angeles artist Noni Olabisi died at the age of 67. Curator Adrienne L. Childs was named the winner of the 2022 David C. Driskell Prize. 

Smithsonian To Return Benin Bronzes to Nigeria

The Smithsonian Institution, one of the world’s largest cultural institutions, said on Tuesday that it will return the majority of its Benin Bronzes collection to Nigeria, after a months-long institutional assessment of its collecting processes and ethics. According to the Washington Post, an agreement for repatriation has yet to be completed, but a plan for the return might be inked next month that cites the director of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments. 

The Smithsonian possesses 39 Benin Bronzes, a term that refers to a wide range of items, including brass plaques, carved elephant tusks, ivory leopard figurines and wooden heads. When the Benin Bronzes are recovered, some will be shown in Benin City, in the David Adjaye-designed Edo Museum of West African Art, which is set to open in 2025. When the British Army attacked the ancient Kingdom of Benin in 1897, many works were looted from what is now Nigeria. A Smithsonian representative told ARTnews in an email that one Benin Bronze will not be returned because it was not acquired as a result of the 1897 attack. 

The news comes five months after Director Ngaire Blankenberg of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art said that the museum’s Benin Bronzes—also known as Benin Kingdom Court Style artworks—had been taken off exhibit. Officials said the pieces came into the Smithsonian’s collection primarily through contributions over many years, and that the Smithsonian holds legal rights to them. It intends to relinquish ownership of the objects and have them sent to Nigeria at the expense of the Smithsonian. 

London’s National Portrait Gallery Increases Female Representation

The National Portrait Gallery in London has purchased five self-portraits by women-identifying artists as part of a three-year commitment to increase female representation in its collection. The gallery currently is closed for a major renovation. The pieces, by Celia Paul, Chila Burman, Susan Hiller, Rose Finn-Kelcey and Everlyn Nicodemus, span 50 years and deal with questions of identity and gender stereotypes. 

The purchases are the result of a three-year collaboration between Chanel and the National Portrait Gallery (which is currently closed for a major refurbishment), which focuses on increasing female visibility in art and championing the role of women in culture, which has been all too often overlooked. When the gallery reopens in 2023, the initiative, titled Reframing Narratives: Women in Portraiture, will boost the percentage of female artists and sitters on show. 

Självporträtt, kersberga (1982), a canvas by Nicodemus, portrays various layers of her face in brilliant colors to express her numerous duties as a woman—artist, writer, mother, wife—and is the gallery’s first painted self-portrait by a Black female artist. Nicodemus also will be the subject of a solo show that will open on April 5 at Richard Saltoun Gallery in London and Rome. 


L.A. Artist Noni Olabisi Dies at 67

The Los Angeles Times writes that Noni Olabisi, a Los Angeles artist whose sharp, honest murals explore Black history and contemporary concerns, has died at the age of 67. Born in 1954 in St. Louis, she moved elsewhere at the age of four after her mother died. Olabisi’s father moved her, her sister and her brother to Arkansas for five years before migrating to Los Angeles. 

Orondé Spears, Olabisi’s son, and Jabari Spears, her grandson, survive her. In April, a public memorial will be held. Her cause of death has yet to be determined. Olabisi had just completed one of the few urban artist residencies in South Los Angeles with Arts at Blue Roof, making the loss unexpected and painful for the L.A. art community. Olabisi was known for her 1992 painting Freedom Won’t Wait outside Good Fred’s barbershop at 1815 W. 54th St., where Olabisi trimmed hair part-time. The work shows close-ups of Black individuals writhing in agony. They were Olabisi’s gift to a people anxious to be heard in the aftermath of the 1992 riots that ripped through their communities. 

To Protect and Serve was one of the first murals to address the history of police brutality. Olabisi’s mural depicted a bound and gagged Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Party and a defendant in the 1969 Chicago Seven trial, under the hardened gaze of presiding Judge Julius Hoffman, flanked by white-robed Klansmen. 

Adrienne L. Childs Wins David C. Driskell Prize

The High Museum of Art has recognized Adrienne L. Childs, an art historian and adjunct curator at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., as the 2022 David C. Driskell Prize winner for her contribution to Black art. The prize, named for the late David C. Driskell, the leading Black art historian of the 20th century, is worth $50,000. 

On April 29, Childs will be recognized at the 17th annual Driskell Prize Dinner. Childs is known for her work on Black artists in the 20th and 21st century, including the lauded 2020 Phillips Collection show, Riffs and Relations: African American Artists in the European Modernist Tradition. The Driskell Prize is awarded to a researcher or artist in their early or mid-career whose work has made a significant contribution to the area and study of Black art. 

Former Spelman College museum curator Andrea Barnwell Brownlee, Michelle Obama portraitist Amy Sherald and curator Valerie Cassel Oliver are among the previous winners. Childs also has published work on European decorative arts, with a particular focus on Blackness and depictions of it. She is an associate of the W. E. B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, in addition to her job at the Phillips Collection. Ornamental Blackness: The Black Figure in European Decorative Arts, her upcoming book, will be published by Yale University Press.

-Sumaiyah E. Wade

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