Scholars Discuss the Idea of Africa in American Art Featuring Art in the Addison’s Collection

Hosted by Tanya Sheehan ’94, Professor of Art at Colby College, “New Perspectives: The Collection in Dialogue” is a lecture series spotlighting themes of diversity, equity, and inclusion in American art, featuring artworks in the gallery of the Addison Gallery of American Art. The third and final installment in this series, titled “Africa in the American Imagination,” took place virtually at 6 p.m. on April 18. 

The webinar featured speakers Tobias Wofford, Associate Professor of Art History at Virginia Commonwealth University, and Lauren Kroiz, Associate Professor in the History of Art Department at University of California, Berkeley.

Speakers explored the various portrayals of Africa in American art. During her presentation, Kroiz discussed the relationship between African art and European modernism, pointing out that many artists in the early 20th century first encountered the “idea of Africa” through a Eurocentric lens. She cited artist Hale Woodruff, whose prints featured elements of African culture, as an example. 

“African art had been made mobile in new ways by European colonization. And Americans, I think, generally came to understand that second or maybe third hand, through French modernism… Woodruff did eventually visit Africa at least twice and he professed kinship with African artists, but he still remembered that he’d first been introduced to African art in the 1920s through a German book that he couldn’t read and that he understood it through Sussan and Picasso and Paris,” said Kroiz.

Sheehan agreed with Kroiz’s observation, adding that the exoticization renders Africa as an abstract idea rather than a concrete location to many American artists.

“For these artists, Africa could be a physical geographic place. But for many of the artists that [the speakers] talked about, it’s more frequently a concept or motif or maybe a place they’ve never been to themselves,” said Sheehan.

Wofford reflected on the role of museums in presenting African art. Acknowledging the nuances of race and colonialism within the history of America and Africa, he encouraged museums to embrace these complexities and the diversity of experiences within this history.

“I find that some of the discussion on African art… [goes] like, ‘They really need to modernize their art program,’ [or] ‘They’re stuck in the past’… And what I think would be really interesting for museums to begin trying to do is to not frame things as this is the source of inspiration and this is the modern work, but to think of them as existing together… [This] is a really weird conversation that is fraught with power, the issue of race, and colonization. To imbue those stories you have to bring as many of the different participants in that story and their perspectives into it,” said Wofford.

Angela Parker, Educator for Academy Engagement at the Addison, was drawn to the event partially for its connection to the Addison’s collection. Sharing her takeaways from the talk, Parker highlighted how the event illuminated an important but less-addressed subject.

“I was interested in the topic and wanted to learn about the Addison’s collection as it relates to Africa. Africa has frequently been treated as a ‘silent partner’ in stories of American and European modernism. Through comparative analysis of modern artworks created by both white and African American artists, we can understand more about the complex relationships these artists and their audiences had with the idea of Africa and African art and culture,” wrote Parker in an email to The Phillipian.

Another attendee, Rachel Vogel, Assistant Curator at the Addison, expressed how the lecture series as a whole offered fresh insight into different approaches towards art. In future discussions, she hopes to expand the artworks featured into the realm of contemporary art.

The ‘New Perspectives: The Collection in Dialogue’ series has been a fantastic opportunity to get better acquainted with a selection of museum works and hear leading experts of American art share new ways of framing and contextualizing them. Last night’s event on ‘Africa in the American Imagination’ provided a chance to think through themes including diaspora, identity, appropriation, travel, belonging, difference as they surfaced across a range of artworks,” wrote Vogel in an email to The Phillipian.

Vogel continued, “I would have loved to hear even more about how the speakers might compare the way that Africa is invoked by various contemporary artists to the 20th century examples that were discussed. I immediately think of a work by Hank Willis Thomas called ‘A Place to Call Home (Africa America Reflection)’… In that work, a mirror is cut out in the shapes of the North American and African continents, which are joined together, with Africa taking the place of South America.”