Final Destination: Taft Museum of Art presents African Modernism in America, February 10–May 19, 2024

Ibrahim El-Salahi (born 1930, Sudan) Vision of the Tomb, 1965 Oil on canvas 36 x 36 in. Photograph by Jerry L. Thompson

The Taft Museum of Art is the final stop on the nationwide tour of African Modernism in America (February 10–May 19, 2024), co-organized by the American Federation of Arts (AFA) and the Fisk University Galleries. It is the first major traveling exhibition to examine the complex relationships between modern African artists and American patrons, artists, and cultural organizations amid the tumultuous interlocking histories of the civil rights movement in the United States, the decolonization of Africa, and the global Cold War. The exhibition includes nearly 80 dynamic and vivid works of art created in Africa during the 1950s and ‘60s.

Sam Joseph Ntiro (1923–1993, Tanzania) Men Taking Banana Beer to Bride by Night, 1956, oil on canvas

African Modernism in America features works by nearly 50 artists that exemplify the connections between the new art that emerged in Africa during the mid-20th century and American art and cultural politics. Many of the paintings, sculptures, and works on paper in the show were drawn from Fisk’s remarkable collection of gifts from the Harmon Foundation. Following World War II, this foundation, along with other institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Fisk University and other historically Black colleges and universities, supported and exhibited the work of Black artists, including the important modern African artists Ben Enwonwu (Nigeria), Ibrahim El-Salahi (Sudan), and Skunder Boghossian (Ethiopia), whose works are featured in the exhibition. 

Seen together, these objects reveal a transcontinental network of artists, curators, and scholars that challenged assumptions about African art in the United States, and thereby encouraged American engagement with African artists as contemporaries. The inventive nature of the works in this exhibition also challenged the assumptions of the time about African art being isolated to a “primitive past.” Some pieces took inspiration from early Christian art, West African sculpture, and Nigerian literature, while others reflect the influences of American jazz and modern European art.

The exhibition also includes a new commission by Nigeria-based sculptor Ndidi Dike that interrogates the Cold War era collecting histories presented in the exhibition, including those of the Harmon Foundation, in its role as a leading American organization that was devoted to the support and promotion of African and African American artists from its founding in 1922 through its closure in 1967. 

“This is an exceptional exhibition that sheds light on cross-cultural artistic exchange,” says the Taft Museum of Art’s associate curator Ann Glasscock, who is curating the museum’s installation of the show. “The exhibition also provides the opportunity to challenge assumptions about African art and its influences, reintroducing these artists into the contextualization of art histories, continued research, and scholarship.”

Uche Okeke (1933–2016, Nigeria)

Ana Mmuo (Land of the Dead) Oil on board

African Modernism in America debuted at the Fisk University Galleries, Nashville, TN (October 7, 2022–February 11, 2023) and traveled to the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Saint Louis, MO (March 10–August 6, 2023) and The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC (October 7, 2023–January 7, 2024). The Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati, OH is the final stop on the national tour (February 10–May 19, 2024).

African Modernism in America opens to the public at the Taft Museum of Art on February 10, 2024. General admission is free for Taft members, military, and youth (17 and under); $15 for adults; and $12 for seniors. Non-members save by purchasing tickets online, with Sundays and Mondays being free. Tickets on sale now 

There’s coinciding programs and events beginning February 8 with the Media Preview from 5–8 p.m. The Taft Museum of Art welcomes members of the media to experience African Modernism in America with the Taft’s team of experts, including remarks from President & CEO Rebekah Beaulieu, in partnership with ArtsWave Flow, An African American Arts Experience and the museum’s member opening of the exhibition. The evening also includes music and self-guided tours. Light bites and drinks. Free valet parking. The remaining calendar events are as follows:

Family Funday | African Modernism in America

Sunday, February 11

10 a.m.–4 p.m.

Celebrate the opening of African Modernism in America on this special day. Make art inspired by the exhibition and enjoy African drumming and dance workshops led by Bi-Okoto. 

Signature Talk | Negotiating Authenticity Between Africa and America

Ben Enwonwu and the Harmon Foundation, 1950–1957

Speaker: Perrin M. Lathrop, PhD, Assistant Curator of African Art at the Princeton University Art Museum and co-curator of African Modernism in America. Supported by the Stanley and Frances D. Cohen Lecture Series. Sponsored by Michael B. Hays and Carol Boram-Hays, PhD.

Thursday, February 29

6–7 p.m. 

In 1950, Ben Enwonwu, with the help of the Harmon Foundation, became one of the first modern African artists to travel to the United States. The artist moved between pan-African contexts in Nigeria, Europe, and the US as colonialism wanted and independence loomed in the decades following World War II. Enwonwu developed a personal narrative around his authenticity as an African artist rooted in his connection to tradition that appeared to an often-imagined idea of Africa then popular among audiences from diverse backgrounds. His successful negotiation of attitudes around African authenticity gave him the platform and language to articulate legacies of shared history and culture on which pan-African solidarity could be built. 

Workshop | Abstract Painting with Cedric Cox

Sunday, March 16

1–4 p.m. 

Explore the exhibition and make your own masterpiece inspired by the show. Work with local artist Cedric Cox to create your own abstract painting. 

Workshop & Tour | SoL Expressions  

Saturday, March 30 

12–3 p.m. 

Join writer, artist, and performer SoL for a tour of the Taft Museum of Art’s latest exhibition, African Modernism in America. The tour will be followed by a workshop that encourages art reflection and self-expression. With SoL’s guidance, participants will discover artworks that resonate with their soul and respond in the medium of their choosing. 

Workshop | Movement & Music with Bi-Okoto 

April 28 and May 12 

10:30–11:30 a.m. 

With live drumming, this class will teach you the fundamentals of traditional West African dance with an emphasis on understanding the accompanying drum rhythms. Classes start with a thorough warm-up, followed by a sequence of movements across the floor. The session runs for 45 minutes, with time reserved for Q&A.  

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