FOMO making you scour the web for the latest African art exhibitions? Well, fear not. From Lynette Yiadom-Boakye at Tate Britain to Toyin Ojih Odutola at The Barbican, and from Global Conversations at the Brooklyn Museum to Sahel at the Met, we’ve got you covered. Here are this year’s must-see museum exhibitions.*
We will, of course, continue to update our EVENTS page, giving you the ability to mark your calendar with unmissable events, so that you never have to fear missing out again.
* Dates updated 14 July as many events have been rescheduled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, Paris
19 November 2019 – 27 September 2020
In a collecting field where Western provenance is increasingly paramount (much to the chagrin of some collectors), one name stands head and shoulders above most, Helena Rubinstein. Madame (as she was affectionately called), was born Chaja Rubinstein in 1872, changed her name to Helena when she moved to Melbourne, established her business, Helena Rubinstein & Co., in 1903, and over time, rose from her humble beginnings in Krakow to build one of the most successful cosmetics enterprises that spanned the globe.
Helena Rubinstein was not only a visionary entrepreneur, but she was also one of the earliest and most discerning collectors of classic African art. From the 1910s, when she first encountered African art through the sculptor Jacob Epstein, Rubinstein eventually amassed a collector of over 260 artworks made by artists across much of the African continent. Key works from her collection included a Fang reliquary head, a Kota reliquary figure, and a Senufo or Bamana helmet mask made by an artist from the Sikasso region.
October 2014 saw the opening of the Helena Rubinstein: Beauty Is Power exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York, during which two hundred works from the Rubinstein collection (not limited to African art) were brought together for the first time. For those that couldn’t make it to New York then, Helena Rubinstein: Madame’s Collection, an exhibition again featuring the Rubinstein collection, is at the musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac in Paris until 28 June 2020. The sixty works on display place a spotlight on Rubinstein’s fascination with African art.
While you’re at the quai Branly, make sure to check out Striking Iron. The Art of African Blacksmiths too, on till 28 June 2020.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
30 January 2020 – 23 August 2020
Similar to how the Madame show appears to build on the 2014 exhibition at the Jewish Museum, Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara, slated to open at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the January 30, builds upon a theme first presented at the Block Museum’s Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time exhibition (which will open at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art on 11 April).
The Sahel region fueled trade routes between the empires of Ghana (300–1200), Mali (1230–1600), Songhay (1464–1591), and Segu (1640–1861) and produced a wealth of material culture in its wake. Where the Block Museum described its exhibition as “the first major exhibition addressing the scope of Saharan trade… [it] showcases the objects and ideas that connected at the crossroads of the medieval Sahara and celebrates West Africa’s historic and under-recognised global significance”, the Metropolitan Museum of Art describes its upcoming exhibition as one that traces “the legacy of the entire Sahel region and what they produced in the visual arts.”
But where the Block Museum focused on the region’s influence on global trade, Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara, which took four years to develop, will feature close to 200 works that highlight the transformative developments that shaped the Sahel region—such as the development of urbanism, the rise and fall of political dynasties, and the arrival of Islam.
The exhibition gives credence to the restitution notion of ‘travelling works’—a number of artworks exhibited will be from the collections at museums and institutions in Mali, Senegal, Niger, and Mauritius, travelling to the United States for the first time ever. In addition, a number of performances, talks and tours are planned during the exhibition including an acoustic performance by Baaba Maal on 9 March and guided tours with the curators of the show Alisa LaGamma and Yaëlle Biro on 21 February and 3 April, respectively.
“What is today south-central Mali is renowned for its traditions of wood sculpture produced by Dogon and Bamana masters. This exhibition seeks to anchor those more fully in what has been an ever-changing cultural landscape and situate them in relation to a more expansive array of its artistic landmarks.”—Alisa LaGamma, Ceil and Michael E. Pulitzer Curator in Charge of Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas
Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn
14 February 2020 – 15 November 2020
What is African art, how does it fit into the wider art historical canon, and why is it so often analysed from the perspective of European modernism? These are questions African Arts—Global Conversations will address. According to the press release, show plans to “put African arts back where they rightfully belong [by pairing twenty] artworks made by African artists with objects from around the world including artworks by Māori, Seminole, Spanish, American, Huastec, and Korean artists.” Through these pairings, the exhibition will consider new ways to critique and analyse African art in relation to non-African art—from faith, race, and history to design, aesthetics, and style.
The Brooklyn Museum has a substantial collection of African art (4,055 objects according to the museum’s collection database) but much of that collection, including many masterpieces, has laid idle in storage, hidden away from public view. Building on the much-celebrated One: Egúngún (2019), Kristen Windmuller-Luna curated African Arts—Global Conversations before her move to Cleveland Museum in January 2020. Provenance research will once again feature prominently in the show, where labels will be added to exhibited works detailing their origin and history.
“Art has many histories, and the story of art cannot be told without Africa. There are more stories to tell about Africa’s role in art history than about one-sided influence, and this exhibition seeks to reassert Africa’s role in the narrative of art history. In today’s world, it’s crucial to promote a global understanding of art, one in which African arts—and other arts too often left out of the canon—are celebrated and included in the conversation.”—Kristen Windmuller-Luna, Curator
Barbican Centre, London
11 August 2020 – 24 January 2021
And now on to the contemporary. A Countervailing Theory will feature new work by Nigerian-American artist Toyin Ojih Odutola (b.1985; Ile-Ife, Nigeria), in her first-ever UK show. Described as an “epic cycle of new work”, the 90-metre long gallery (The Curve at the Barbican Centre) will become a giant canvas on which monumental portraits present ancient myths.
Ojih Odutola (the third highest-selling Nigerian artist of all time) believes that drawings can tell stories, much like her ancestors told stories and communicated histories through carvings and etchings. Working exclusively with drawing materials—pencil, pastel, ballpoint pen and charcoal—Ojih Odutola traces imagined narratives, urging the viewer to envisage the histories of her subjects. The exhibition promises to “explore an intense engagement with mark-making and its potential for meaning”.
02 October 2020 – 29 March 2021
The restitution debate shows no signs of abating… at least not where museums are concerned. With that in mind, a number of museums have begun the work of researching the provenance of the various objects within their collections.
In Send It Back, we detail the turbulent history that has led to many classic works of art from Africa making their way to the West. 2020 marks one hundred years since the Museum aan de Stroom (MAS) in Antwerp acquired its collection of works of art made by artists from the now Democratic Republic of the Congo.
As museums grapple with their past and question what future engagements with both the public and their collections will look like, 100 x Congo will present one hundred unique works of Congolese art that Antwerp acquired during colonial times to ask, “What are the stories behind the Congolese objects that the MAS possesses and how did they end up in the port city?” The exhibition will uncover the role that Christian missionaries (like ‘The White Fathers – The Missionnaries of Africa Pères Blancs’), colonial officers (including Louis Franck), and collectors/dealers (such as Henri Pareyn) had on Congolese material culture. It will provide an opportunity for reflection on the significance of art made by artists from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the sometimes brutal way in which parts of the collection made its way to Antwerp.
Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland
01 November 2020 – 14 March 2021
African art objects have Second Careers—they live new lives when they enter Western museums. Materials also have Second Careers—classic and contemporary African artworks such as masks and sculptures are composed of a matrix of materials that were once used for everyday purposes. This practice of transforming materials has wider cultural resonance in Africa today, where electronics, discarded engines, and rubber tires are incorporated by artisans into artworks. These objects and materials were repurposed to serve secondary purposes, Second Careers.
Second Careers: Two Tributaries in African Art will explore the status of African art objects when they begin their second careers. Classic figures, masks, costumes, and a prestige throne all from Central and West Africa, will be juxtaposed with large-scale installations, sculptures, and photographs by six leading contemporary African artists—El Anatsui (Ghana), Nnenna Okore (Nigeria), Zohra Opoku (Ghana), Elias Sime (Ethiopia), Tahir Carl Karmali (Kenya), and Gonçalo Mabunda (Mozambique)—to consider the connections between classic African art and works made by today’s artists. The exhibition will investigate how these objects and artworks are transformed in their new environments and into new states.
The show was developed by the then curator of African art, Ugochukwu-Smooth Nzewi, and was slated to open from 20 October 2019. But with Nzewi moving on to MOMA (22 July 2019), the opening of Second Careers: Two Tributaries in African Art is now due to take place on 11 July 2020.
Tate Modern, London
05 November 2020 – 07 March 2021
In another first, Tate Modern will present the first major survey of the work of South African visual activist Zanele Muholi (b.1972; Umlazi, Durban, South Africa). Bringing together a massive archive of 260 photographs, the exhibition will chronicle the full breadth of Muholi’s career to date—from their first series, Only Half the Picture, that records the complexities of gender and sexuality of queer individuals in South Africa, to their more recent body of work, Somnyama Ngonyama (meaning ‘Hail the Dark Lioness’ in Zulu), a collection of striking self-portraits that address issues of race and representation.
Muholi’s work aims to challenge. By increasing the contrast in their self-portraits, Muholi increases the separation between dark and light, enhancing the darkness of their skin tone to reclaim their blackness and challenge conventional notions of beauty.
Also on show will be the series Faces and Phases that “commemorates and celebrates black lesbians, transgender persons and gender non-conforming individuals”, Brave Beauties that celebrates “empowered non-binary and trans women” and Being, “images of couples which challenge stereotypes and taboos.”
Tate Britain, London
18 November 2020 – 09 May 2021
In the final ‘first’ featured in this exhibition guide, and proving that 2020 is the year for women of African descent in the arts, Tate Britain will present the first major mid-career survey of the work of British painter, poet, and writer of Ghanian descent, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (b.1977; London, United Kingdom).
Shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 2013, awarded the Carnegie International Prize in 2018, and participating in the critically-acclaimed 2019 debut of the Ghana Freedom pavilion at the International Venice Biennale, Yiadom-Boakye is considered to be one of the most important figurative painters working today.
She is best known for her large scale paintings of black fictional subjects but as she describes, these imagined figures are not created as a political gesture. “When people ask about the aspect of race in the work, they are looking for very simple or easy answers. Part of it is when you think other people are so different than yourself, you imagine that their thoughts aren’t the same. When I think about thought, I think about how much there is that is common… let people be. I always say the work is not a celebration as such, because that’s sometimes just as weird and excluding and perverse.”
The exhibition will bring together close to eighty paintings and works on paper from over two decades of Yiadom-Boakye’s career, including new paintings shown for the first time. The exhibition will travel to Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain later in the year, where it’s slated to open 25 September.
“I write about the things I can’t paint and paint the things I can’t write about.”—Lynette Yiadom-Boakye
Humboldt Forum, Berlin
Opening Late 2020
Not an exhibition but an event that many are waiting for with bated breath—the September 2020 opening of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin. Housed in the rebuilt Berlin Palace, which cost 595 million euros to renovate, the Forum will be a vast museum complex that will be the new home of the African art collection from the Ethnologisches Museum (Ethnological Museum). Well over 75,000 objects, primarily from Nigeria, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola and East Africa, will move in.
Not yet open, the Humboldt Forum and its development have already been fraught with controversies top of which is, as you’ve probably guessed, the restitution debate. Academics and scholars have complained about the limited access to the African art collection and lack of visibility into the provenance of the various objects in the collection. A large percentage of the 75,000 African objects were taken in various ways from African territories during the colonial era. According to the museum, “at the time of the Berlin Conference in 1884/85, [the collection] comprised just 7,000 objects, but was expanded by 50,000 works during the colonial era.”
In an open letter, a demand was made for open access; “It is scandalous that even though this debate has continued for two years now, there is still no unrestricted access to German museum inventories. Precisely which African art is preserved in public museums in Germany today? From which regions? Which type of objects? We want and need to know this, if we want to work together on the colonial past.”
All that said, the museum, once open, will be one to visit this year. Highlights of the African objects and artworks include the now world-famous Mandu Yenu Bamum throne, the 16th-century Iyoba commemorative head of a queen mother from the Kingdom of Benin, and the Chokwe Chibinda Ilunga figure. The collection forms one of the richest holdings of African art in the world.
African art holdings at other museums can be found in EXPLORE.