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A South African Exhibition Explores African American Identity

Hank Willis Thomas' metal sculpture 'Africans In America: A Place To Call Home' inspired a whole exhibit in Africa.
Dawit L. Petros, Act of Recovery (Part 1), 2016, Archival colour pigment print 20 × 26 1/5 in 50.8 × 66.44 cm Editions of 3 + 1AP Courtesy Goodman Gallery

In 1988, Civil Rights leader Jesse Jackson held a press conference to end the debate about what to call black people living in America. He announced that the culturally appropriate way to racially categorize black Americans is to refer to the group as African Americans. The terms, ‘black,’ ‘colored,’ and ‘negro,’ according to Jackson lacked, “cultural integrity,” and were too rooted in American racism.  Jackson stated, ''Every ethnic group in this country has a reference to some land base, some historical cultural base. African-Americans have hit that level of cultural maturity.''


Despite Jackson’s urging, the debate over how to define American descendants of slaves has endured. For some simply “American” will do, the politically minded prefer “black,” and for those concerned with how Africa figures into their racial identities, “African-American,” captures the past and present.

Hank Willis Thomas, A place to call home (Africa – America), 2009, Polished aluminum with powdered coat 203 x 167.6 cm Edition of 3 Courtesy of Goodman Gallery

The current identity debate is led by the artist Hank Willis Thomas and his black metal wall sculpture, where he reimagines America connected to Africa. In Africans In America: A Place To Call Home, he moves Africa through the Atlantic Ocean, like a slave ship traversing the Middle Passage, to situate the continent beneath North America. Thomas’s map has inspired an exhibition entitled, Africans in America at Goodman Gallery and the Johannesburg Art Gallery.

“I have often wondered how do you make work for what it means to be African American,”  Hank Thomas tells The Creators Project. “I’m often asked as an African American, where I come from. When I say, ‘New York,’ that’s not enough.”

He says, “When I created the piece, A Place To Call Home, it really is for me about this place in my mind where I come from because I think the hybridity of my identities is very hard to place.”

The exhibition co-curated by Thomas and Goodman Gallery director, Liza Essers examines the relationship between Africa and the Americas. The group show includes works by black and white Americans and African artists including Kehinde Wiley, Carrie Mae Weems, Mikhael Subotzky, Ghada Amer, Tabita Rezaire and Alfredo Jaar, who through painting, photography, video, and sculpture explore the connections, real and imagined, between black peoples. Each work attempts to add specificity to an aspect of black identity, using history, political circumstance, and narratives that have shaped personal constructions of black identity.


Wangechi Mutu, Flower head, 2015 Mixed media 111.8 x 81.3 x 33 cm 44 1/8 x 32 1/8 x 13 in Courtesy Goodman

“’Africans in America,’ really looks at dynamics and tensions of place particularly with respect to the African context,” explains Liza Essers. “Out of the consideration of home really comes the debate about nationality, belonging, race, power, patriarchy and the ownership of space, and these bigger ideas inform the everyday social context,” says Essers.

Daápó Reo’s ALCOHOLOTOPIA (A Geopolitical Dream Under The Influence) weaves together patches of African fabrics to serve as the stripes of the American flag. Reo’s flag conveys African American unity. Similarly, Brendan Fernandes’s red, green, and black flag installation The End, speaks to a Du Boisian longing for Pan-Africanism. One reads: “AS ONE IN THE END / THE END / END / WE ARE / ONE.” The theme is further explored and undercut in Rashid Johnson’s Untitled Anxious Drawing, a figure originally comprised of African black soap inspired by the recent killings of unarmed black men, women, and children by policemen in America.

Daàpò Reo, Alcoholotopia (A Geopolitical Dream Under the Influence), 2016.Cotton, polyester 108 x 60 inches Courtesy of Goodman Gallery

Other works in Africans in America speaks to the interplay between memory and the depiction of black history in the United States and Africa. The exhibition includes, photographs from Eric Gottesman’s The Oromaye Projects that explores the legacy of the Ethiopian writer Baalu Girma through a series of performative photographs of a figure playing the author smoking, drinking coffee and among people in the streets of Addis Ababa. And a series of Carrie Mae Weems’ pictures—The Capture of Angela, The Assassination of Medgar, Malcolm and Martin, and Mourning—recreate grave, bloody moments in United States’ struggle for civil rights. Shown in a South African context, the photographs draw parallels to the country’s struggle to end apartheid.


Alfredo Jaar, One million points of light, 2005 Light box 45 x 60 x 12 cm Courtesy of Goodman Gallery

Alfredo Jaar’s One Million Points of Light, captures sunlight off the coast of Angola. It’s a work that alludes to the memory of the nearly four million slaves sent from Angola to Brazil during the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Jaar’s light box and Dawit L. PetrosAct of Recovery, a print of people standing on a coast before a sunken ship, questions the ways the term African American, in its intended use for descendants of African slaves in the United States, obscures the identities of South American descendant of slaves and the more recent histories of black immigrants living in the United States from the Caribbean or Africa. Thomas calls the latter group, “literal African Americans,” peoples from Africa who are routinely grouped with black Americans despite their cultural and historical differences.

Africans in America, the exhibition, doesn’t seek to provide a monolithic idea of black identity or give the term, African American, the total weight of a unified black narrative. Thomas says, “The exhibition starts the conversation” about how blackness is comprised of many identities and simply offers, as Essers points out, a “rewriting of some of the narratives from an African perspective.”

Brendan Fernandes, Installation images of The End, 2014 Courtesy Goodman Gallery

Africans in America continues through at Goodman Gallery Johannesburg and the Johannesburg Gallery of Art. For more information, click here.


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